Sports media desperately needs a canary in the coalmine. The sports media world has increasingly followed a disconcerting trend—one which is mirrored in coverage of the presidential election. Blessed—or, more likely burdened—with never-ending airtime, television media overdramatizes its own coverage in a self-fulfilling prophecy of inanity. Obvious conflict-of-interest issues aside, this process necessitates near-constant narrative creation within these media circles; witness the ubiquity of “gamechanger” moments in the last presidential election. Sorry, Microsoft spellcheck: gamechanger entered the dictionary during the past year, as media pundits hyped their horserace style coverage with almost 3,000 such references in the past month alone.
This cycle of narrative creation bubbles up to the surface more insidiously in the sports media world. The media may transform the presidential election into an overdramatized horserace—after all, many political scientists were correctly predicting an Obama victory accurately as early as June—but at least the election has a tangible real world impact. Sports media, on the other hand, has become a behemoth all to its own. The sports media world now represents a dizzying volume of money and coverage. Moreover, sports media’s ubiquitous presence makes it more overwhelming than our political coverage. Ohio voters may feel as if political ads and CNN instant polls saturate their every pore every 4 years, but at least they get a hibernation period now unheard of in sports media.
ESPN’s sports coverage is perhaps the most flagrant example of this trend. ESPN’s exclusive television contracts place the network in a unique position, whereby it produces, markets, analyzes, and then profits off sports. This position facilitates narrative creation: ESPN analysts create a narrative, announcers hammer it home during a game, and then ESPN selectively reinforces it with SportsCenter highlights or ad campaigns for a playoff series. The network—and the sports media world at large—needs a self-conscious, reflective moment. Mark Cuban, that unrepentant egotist, surprisingly provided such an example.
Cuban, in a segment on ESPN, took Skip Bayless and the network as a whole to task for their inconsistent and self-serving coverage of LeBron James. James, entered his prime as this era of constant media coverage and narrative creation really took of. His career represents the most potent example of just how strong media pressure can affect an athlete’s career. For the first part of James’ career, with the Cleveland Cavaliers, ESPN portrayed him as a fun-loving kid, essentially: James throwing up chalk and clowning around with his teammates were defining and consistent images of his early years in the NBA. Then, the Decision happened. LeBron’s celebration in Miami devastatingly compounded the media disaster; and perhaps unsurprising ESPN happily broadcast each part of the fiasco.
Suddenly, the happy-go-lucky star was the villain; ESPN, for its part, gladly pumped this narrative up, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy where James himself actually may have believed he was a villain. It all came to a head in the 2011 NBA finals, where the Mavericks triumphed over the Heat and the media eviscerated LeBron’s performance—deservedly so.
Fast-forward a year later. LeBron and his Heat have just defeated the Thunder in the 2012 Finals, with LeBron delivering virtuoso performances. The media narrative pivoted stunningly quickly: he’d turned the corner, become a winner, become a Jordan-style killer, developed a better post game, cared more and tried harder. Cuban angrily lashed out at this sentiment on ESPN. “Everything’s generalities,” he lamented, before attacking the paucity of facts and substance in ESPN’s portrayal of LeBron over the past two seasons. Skip Bayless, who seriously referred to himself as Lebron’s Howard Cosell, countered, claiming “LeBron played harder than Kevin Durant” and pinpointing last year’s Final’s defeat on LeBron’s lack of effort.
Cuban took Bayless to task. “It’s not that OKC doesn’t want it more…Miami was better prepared to play the game,” he argued. Moreover, Cuban pointed out, “[The Mavericks] get no credit for not putting him in a position to succeed,” correctly lambasting Bayless for his laser focus on one player in a team game. Cuban went on to explain the zone match-ups the Mavericks utilized to defend LeBron; his new post game wasn’t something he developed but rather something the Thunder lacked the personnel to defend.
This explicaton of the Bayless-Cuban argument is not so much a criticism of Bayless—though he is an unrepentant demagogue—but rather an example of the insidious effect of narrative construction. ESPN’s laser focus on LeBron’s flaws post-Decision caused a misguided analysis of the 2011 Finals whereby LeBron utterly failed and the Mavericks merely got lucky. A year later, they reversed the narrative: LeBron’s heroics pushed the Heat over the top. As with any broad generalization, some kernel of truth exists with each. Such narratives, however, ignore the nuances of team games, place unfair pressure on athletes themselves, and hype up the network’s own coverage. ESPN had a vested interest in portraying LeBron has a villain because they’d already decided he was a villain for a misguided decision he made—on their network, no less. Such narrative construction threatens to turn real analysis of sports—LeBron did tangibly improve in the 2012 playoffs, but not because he simply wanted it more—into inane narrative battles. That’s a shame: the poor people of Ohio have had enough.