Seriously? LeBron James is the “sportsman” of the year? Well, according to Sports Illustrated he is. Their criteria? “The athlete or team whose performance that year most embodies the spirit of sportsmanship and achievement.” I guess there is a lot of leeway there, but let’s be clear, being really, really good at one’s sport is the real criterion. After all, Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong, Brett Favre, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGuire have all won “sportsman” of the year (Tiger did it twice). Not exactly “sportsmen,” but they sure had great years in their sport. To be fair, none of the scandals that later marred these “sportsmens'” legacies had publicly surfaced at the time they received their honors. But can any reporter who covered them, including those who wrote their year-end hagiographies for Sports Illustrated, honestly say that they didn’t have a clue that these guys might not be the moral titans they were portrayed to be?
I’m not saying that LeBron is necessarily a creep, at least not on the level of those guys. Maybe he is, maybe he isn’t. But isn’t there enough evidence at this point that maybe “sportsman” isn’t quite the right name for this award? Maybe “athlete,” or perhaps “most overwhelmingly awesome physical performance in a sport”? (In which case, how about Usain Bolt?)
That would seem to be a logical way out of this charade. But Sports Illustrated, rather than giving this award to truly bona fide sportsmen who are also great athletes, prefers to award its “sportsman of the year” prize to a great athlete who they can then dose with about 1,000 micrograms of sanctimonious bullshit and call it a day, or a year, or whatever….
On that note, let us recall Peter King’s profile of Brett Favre after his first fake retirement. Was it not enough to honor Favre as the fierce competitor and Super Bowl winner that he was? No, as “sportsman of the year” he also had to be a soft-hearted and devoted family man who gave every ounce of his soul to his cancer-stricken wife, just as he had done for his adoring teammates. Of course, just a year later we discovered that he had in fact been exposing other soft parts of himself to women who were not his wife.
Which brings me back, in a weird way, to LeBron James. It is impossible to deny his talent. He is the best basketball player of his generation, and a fantastic team player at that. If there is any legitimate criticism of his game it’s that he is possibly too unselfish. So why can’t we honor that? Well, it’s Sports Illustrated, that’s why. They decide to hang what ought to be a ten page photo spread of LeBron James’s greatest plays onto a strange quasi-religious story from LeBron’s boss, Miami Heat president and former head coach Pat Riley, who sounds positively punch drunk as he describes a mystical experience he had while watching the spray of an angry fan’s spilled beer turn into a halo over LeBron’s head (talk about hagiography!). And that pretty much sums up the rest of the article.
As a basketball fan I’m willing to overlook LeBron’s moments of immaturity, including his refusal to shake hands after a playoff loss to Orlando, the “Decision” debacle, and even the time he told his mother to “sit your ass down” during a game. I don’t like these things, but I am willing to overlook them as long as LeBron James is not sold to me as something other than a basketball player. And that’s the problem. Lee Jenkins, the skilled writer behind the SI profile in question, decides to play the role of marketer here. LeBron is pitched as more than a basketball player– he even has a halo over his head for chrissakes. And, we are told, he has a passion for…education. He even likes to read books (and why is this remarkable?). We also learn from several anecdotes offered by grade school children in LeBron’s hometown of Akron, Ohio that LeBron has motivated them to stay in school and pay more attention to their grades (he has established an educational foundation). This is, no doubt, admirable, and it is especially nice when someone with LeBron James’s means puts his money where his mouth is.
But as much as I would like to believe that LeBron James is Mother Theresa with mad hops, I just can’t put that old bullshit detector away. That’s because, more than anyone since Tiger Woods, LeBron James is a product. Nike told us the day he came out of high school to “Witness” his greatness. They press a new t-shirt for every milestone in his career, and somehow he’s in it and in front of a camera before the sweat dries. Like Tiger Woods, he is more than an athlete who sells things. He is the product.
And its the way the product is marketed that makes the skin crawl. It turns out that even LeBron’s gift-giving is guided by a cynical hand, which belongs, by the way, to a guy named Maverick Carter, LeBron’s old high school teammate and current business manager. In the following interview with Jason Whitlock, Carter reveals how the sausage is made (the emphasis is mine).
Did I ever tell you the story about Beats by Dre?” he [Carter] inquires excitedly.
“I’m in Los Angeles,” Carter says. “I’m with Jimmy Iovine. We’re in his office. It’s a couple of years ago, around 2008.”
Iovine is the chairman of Interscope Records. He produced albums for U2 and Tom Petty. Iovine discovered Eminem. Iovine sold the masters to Death Row Records for $500 million.
Iovine is music royalty. Carter, at this time, is the undistinguished childhood friend LeBron James put in charge of his global-icon aspirations.
“I got this whole thing about gift-giving and how to use it as a marketing tool,” Carter continues. “Jimmy is telling me about Beats, the headphones by Dr. Dre . . . So Jimmy has me put on a pair of Beats. I love them! The sound is great. They look hip.
“I say, ‘Jimmy, let me get 15 pair.’ He’s like, ‘Mav, these aren’t on the market yet. I don’t even know if I have 15 in my office. I say, ‘Jimmy, let me get 15 pair and watch what I do with them.’ ”
Iovine obliges. Carter gives the headphones to James, instructs the two-time NBA MVP to gift them to his 2008 Olympic teammates as they board their flight to China. As he presents the headphones, James shares a short speech that touches on the significance of their journey and how the Beats symbolize the sincerity of their commitment to put team goals ahead of individual ones.
When the Redeem Team deplaned in Beijing, the international press awaited LeBron, Kobe, D-Wade, ’Melo and D12. A paparazzi-like contingent of still and television cameras captured their arrival. Fifteen new pairs of Beats draped the heads and necks of the world’s most recognizable athletes as they conducted their initial, impromptu Olympic interviews.
Carter engineered the ultimate product placement, a genius, massive, free advertising campaign.
Gift-giving as a marketing tool. Genius. I think that’s all I really need to know about this benevolent sportsman.