DENVER • No surprise, LeBron James is getting the 2019 treatment now. Getting it good, too, the kind of self-righteous cultural cancellation normally reserved for comedians, Hollywood martyrs or whoever dares make a mistake.
Figures. When a public figure doesn’t walk the media line that veers straight left, good luck finding your way back. James screwed the pooch in China, no doubt about it. Now King James has been relegated to peasant status.
Problem is, this lazy but convenient conclusion ignores the root cause: Who made LeBron James a spokesman for worldly matters to begin with? Who celebrated his many woke stances without once vetting his credibility? Whose idea was it to appoint a basketball player an enlightened thought leader?
Sports media. They propped him up. They escorted James into a role for which he’s entirely unqualified. When James Euro-stepped into the Twitter echo chamber to refer to President Trump as “u bum,” they tossed out comparisons to Muhammad Ali and Tommie Smith. When James hosted the California governor to sign a name, image and likeness bill for college athletics, they praised his progressive stance on something he probably learned about on social media. Shoot, high-major coaches who make their living in athletics don’t have clarity on how to fairly compensate amateurs. How’s a guy who skipped college supposed to know?
”I don’t know what the results are going to be. I don’t think anybody does,” CU coach Tad Boyle said Wednesday. “We’ll see how it all plays out.”
In terms of their reputation, the smartest stance an athlete can take is to align themselves with the worldviews of American sports media. That way they don’t need to be accurate or educated on the subject matter. They just need to be a confident, well-known figure who parrots what sports media want him or her to say. Because the next part — the part we’re seeing now, where they turn against the high-profile star in the most disingenuous way possible — was as predictable as the next series of fake outrage.
They’re going to cancel their own creation.
Sure, James is at fault here. Course he is. He’s a grown man, as anyone who’s stood next to the greatest athlete of a generation can attest. Kowtowing to Nike and an oppressive foreign regime never will be a good look, and knocking free speech down a peg was worse.
But this whole disaster’s also on the sports media that for years promoted a basketball player as the second coming of Martin Luther King Jr. Now, from The Atlantic to USA Today to Deadspin, they feign surprise when the athlete explains away his sins with this pile of jumbled gobbledygook: “Even though, yes, we do have freedom of speech, there can be a lot of negative that comes with that too,” James said.
What’s the fix here? Starts with Nike, like most hoops matters do.
Let’s run back the Charles Barkley commercial from the ‘90s: “I’m not a role model. Just because I can dunk a basketball doesn’t mean I should raise your kids.”
Perfect then, perfect now. But consider me shocked — shocked! — a professional athlete was ill-prepared for the political arena.
Now hold on for a minute while I lace up these kicks to play for the Nuggets. I watched NBA highlights on “SportsCenter” last night, so I’m obviously qualified for the job. Put me in, coach.
(Contact Gazette sports columnist Paul Klee at email@example.com or on Twitter at @bypaulklee.)