We were all witnesses (To the death of sports media)

Note: This post was written almost totally last night. I was simply too tired to edit it. Thus the words “tonight” and “today” refer to yesterday (Thursday).

I didn’t want to be full of vitriol tonight. I didn’t want the co-opted media “event” crafted by LeBron James’ “team” and ESPN get me down. ESPN always blows things out of proportion, I told myself ever since the subtly titled, “The Decision” was announced. Hey, at least it was all for charity, I repeated.

Then I made the mistake of turning on ESPN today (this was at 1 p.m. mind you). Not only did ESPN’s 1 p.m. Sportscenter include a chyron marketing the event and constant mentions to the 9 p.m. start time, but also reporters in every possible city he could choose. That included people in New Jersey, a team that was never really even in the running. It did not stop there. At 6 p.m., a THREE-HOUR Sportscenter began, with more of the satellite reports, more of in-the-know reporter Chris Broussard, more of the ridiculous highlights and annoying rhetoric.

You probably watched “The Decision.” You know what happened. I’ve seen ESPN spend an entire summer with reporters camped outside of Brett Favre’s house. I’ve seen them promote non-stories — hello, anything with Terrell Owens — and kill real stories — sup, USC football controversy — with ease. I’ve seen them actually air a Selection Sunday special where analyst Joe Lunardi picks the winners of FICTITIOUS BRACKET he and he alone crafted before the real NCAA tournament brackets were released. I say all this because I know how much ESPN sucks, how its reach and control has led to laziness and a lack of awareness.

But, after watching how this whole thing unfolded today and really over the past 10 days, I can say, without a shadow of a doubt, that this is the lowest ESPN has ever dipped. Though the sports media giant had little credibility left in terms of actual, subtle, true reporting, I cannot imagine anyone who cares about those things will ever look at the World Wide Leader ever again. And because the WWL is in such a powerful position, my headline isn’t as far-fetched as it seems. Sports media will never be the same after the travesty that was “The Decision” and the “reporting” that led up to it.

I don’t want to get on my high horse here, but the explosion of blogs, talk radio, Twitter, etc. has led to an increase in the number of people who do the verbal version of throwing something against a wall to see what sticks. Everything is based on sources — who are most likely agents, “teams” and PR people like those who handled LeBron’s situation — and there’s simply no accountability.  It’s one thing to have that on the internet, but it’s totally seeped into the ESPN m.o. If they’re competing against the internet, they have no choice but to fight rumor fire with proverbial rumor fire.

All that, I can deal with. It is what it is. People start rumors, it’s picked up and off we go. But now, athletes that have grown up part of the internet, nu-ESPN era are savvy to how it all works so they and their “teams” can absolutely manipulate the process as a way to both drum up interest in whatever message they’re putting out and control said message. Thus, LeBronathon, “The Decision” and the fiasco that was.

Every day this week, LeBron was supposedly going to another, new team. And every day, that news came from “sources.” Based on what we saw with “The Decision,” I have to imagine that it was LeBron’s team leaking out little nuggets of information to journalists looking to get ahead as a way to drum up interest for their faux-charity event. Shame on everyone involved, but I guess there’s no reason to expect nothing less from someone like LeBron James, who has grown up more as a brand than an actual professional basketball player.

That was enough for me. But then it was revealed that LeBron’s team had completely worked ESPN and all other media outlets into a tizzy, so they could hijack an hour of ESPN primetime. It’s one thing to drum up interest in your choice, it’s another thing to want to televise said choice and it’s a totally other, more disgusting thing to actually let all this happen. ESPN’s coverage of Brett Favre was despicable, but at least it was on their own accord. Here, the biggest sports media company in the world let one individual take control of an hour of their airtime. LeBron’s team crafted all of “The Decision,” the location, the charity giveback, the interviewee, all of it. ESPN just showed up with their cameras and surely Maverick Carter told them what was what.

And, that, folks is utterly terrible. But it got worse.

After all week of saying that LeBron’s choice would come at the top of the hour, ESPN milked it until almost 9:30 p.m., filling the hour with Stuart Scott’s pathetic jokes and Chris Broussard’s constant reiterating, “Hey, I hope I’m right, but I’m probably not! You’re welcome!” Throw in a slew of dunk highlights and even some shots of LeBron in HIGH SCHOOL — because that’s totally relevant — and all of a sudden, it was more than obvious that this was all just an advertisement for King James.

And even when we cut to LeBron and Jim Gray, James was thrown softball question after softball question — “LeBron: What did you dream about last night?” — before awkwardly transitioning into the actual news. Although things improved when Michael Wilbon asked LeBron some actual questions — none of which he really answered — things ended on a fitting note. A second big announcement! And what was that? That one of LeBron’s major sponsors, Vitamin Water, allowed a Facebook fan to ask him a question. That question? “How long would President Obama last in a game of HORSE with you?”  Yes, on the most important night of his real life and media life, LeBron was asked a tough question from a Facebook fan about playing HORSE with President Obama. There we had Stu Scott and LeBron yucking it up like this was just a big joke.

You know what? It was.

Not only was “The Decision” itself an abomination, but now ESPN and other major sports media outlets open themselves up for more. What’s to stop some young NFL player from doing the same thing? “The Decision” might be getting filleted by folks like me, but it will surely be a ratings success and now the formula is there. Better agents and more time could allow someone like Darrell Revis from crafting that’s more subtle and successful. All of a sudden, ESPN is now working for athletes instead of reporting on them, a situation where they are unable to totally be objective or even correct in their reporting. This is bad news for a media organization that surely puts “entertain” and “promote” ahead of “report.”

“The Decision” was a pathetic, marketing-fueled circus that disappointed in its own right. But what it means for ESPN and how future athletes can use the WWL to their advantage is downright scary.

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