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TV 101: LeBron Shames Himself

by Jay Black, posted Jul 14th 2010 4:03PM
LeBron Jame and a headband.LeBron James went on TV last week and made everybody in America hate him.

The reason for all that hatred couldn't have been just what his decision actually was. I mean, the guy moved from Cleveland to Miami -- the only justification you need for that is to remind people that you moved from Cleveland to Miami. The only two people who think that's a bad move are Ian Hunter and Dan Gilbert and it's not clear that either of them are sane.

No, LeBron's downfall had nothing to do with sports. What hurt LeBron was that he made the one mistake that is unforgivable in America: he screwed up on TV.

According to the inside flap of Malcolm Gladwell's 'Blink,' experts can often assess a situation instantly based almost entirely on the intuition built through a lifetime's worth of experience. And while Americans might have slipped a bit in recent years when it comes to education or employment, there's one thing that we do better than anybody, and that's TV. We can watch the crap out of a show.

We instinctively know what works and what doesn't and that's why we got so angry at LeBron last Thursday night. It's not that he turned around and stabbed Cleveland in the back -- hey, that's sports -- it's that he created a show that failed America's collective blink test.

It's worth a closer examination as to what went wrong, because LeBron's mistakes reveal just how subtle our collective understanding of the media is.

1. Your self-promotion cannot be self-motivated

People were angry the instant they heard LeBron was going to announce his decision in a live television special. This is interesting because, philosophically, there's no difference between making the announcement on a live TV special or a making it in live press conference. And yet, the former got people angry while no one would have raised an eyebrow about the latter. It's like getting mad that your wife got you a Yusuf Islam album when what you really wanted was the new Cat Stevens record.

Further, the two players James will be joining in Miami -- Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh -- are both filming reality shows about their own journeys through free agency. This seems like a far bigger ego-trip than a single hour of live TV, but Wade and Bosh haven't received one-quadrillionth of the criticism that James has had.

You could write that off to the size of the stars involved -- if James is the sun, then Wade is Antares, and Bosh is energy star logo on your dishwasher -- but the reason goes deeper than that. James's mistake is that he called for the special himself. He had no plausible deniability that it was somebody else's idea.

The American people don't like it when self-promotion is so obviously self-motivated. Don't get me wrong, we're a-okay with people selling every last ounce of their mother's soul for twelve seconds of airtime on TMZ, we just don't want you to be blatant about it. Wade and Bosh get a free pass because they can claim that they were approached by producers for their reality shows, just like Kim Kardashian can claim that her sex tape was leaked "against her will."

James can claim no such thing; since the special was his idea he looked immediately like he was a fame-seeking jerk. Instead of the Kardashian defense -- I'm not happy about this, but if it's what people want, I guess I'll have to go along with it -- James was stuck looking like Screech's sex tape -- hey, I bet people will pay attention to me if I put this on video and I sure do like attention!

If there's one thing America can't abide, it's a naked Screech.

2. Don't be self-aware

The other interesting thing about the backlash to the special is just how many people watched it: the show was the third-highest rated cable show of the year.

But paradoxically, the very success of the show is what's helping to fuel so much rancor towards LeBron right now. Not since the Be Sharps titled their second album 'Bigger than Jesus' has a public figure invited so much hate into his life by acknowledging his own star power.

Wilt Chamberlain was only partially right when he said "nobody roots for Goliath." All Goliath has to do to win our sympathies is to pretend that he's really David. For instance, we'll happily accept that Ozzy Osbourne is a doddering old man incapable of household chores because it's more palatable to us than the truth: that he's a doddering old man who can afford fifty maids to take care of those household chores for him.

A celebrity is better off pretending to be unaware of his own fame and fortune. LeBron's TV special was a public acknowledgment of both. It's existence basically said to the world, "I'm famous enough that you care about this," and even though he was right, we hated him for knowing that he was right.

3. When you use kids, we know you're manipulating us

James donated all proceeds from his special to the Boys and Girls and Club, which is ostensibly a good thing. Except that any time you're on TV surrounded by kids, the subtext is almost always, "I'm a tremendous jerk, please look at these kids and try to forget about this fact."

Kids are always at the heart of television manipulation. When Balloon Boy's parents wanted a reality show, they faked a kid trapped on a runaway balloon. When Ty Pennington and his soul patch want you to cry on 'Extreme Home Makeover,' they just show you some poor kid wishing he had a NASCAR-themed bedroom. When a contestant on a reality show wants us to root for him, he makes sure to tell the camera that he's "doing it for his kids."

Kids are a sign of manipulation as sure as the words "up next: 'Two and a Half Men'" are a sign it's time to change the channel.

Thus, LeBron being surrounded by kids on his show sent a subconscious message to everyone watching that none of what we were seeing was real. It was impossible for LeBron to generate any sympathy from us because the presence of those kids was so crassly asking for our sympathy. It's an easy trope and we've seen it enough by now to become hardened to it.

4. Insert your analysis here

You guys have been fantastic in the comments lately -- keep it going with your own analysis of LeBron's TV special. What else did he do wrong? Let me know! By the way, I'd also ask you to please avoid telling me how stupid I am in the comments, but it's my wife's favorite part of the column, so go ahead and add that too if you feel the need.

(Jay Black is a comedian and a writer who really hopes you like this column. To find out more about Jay or to check out one of his live shows, visit his website at www.jayblackcomedy.net.)

[Follow @jayblackcomedy on Twitter]

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I'll spare you the brochure excerpts, but Cleveland's pretty cool (you just have to look a little harder to find it). We just can't have nice things.

I'm seriously buying a billboard to put up that slogan. "We Can't Have Nice Things."

July 15 2010 at 1:15 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Tom C.

OK. LeBron's a jerk. That's a given. But this writer is still not that funny. And why is Ian Hunter (who I'm guessing most of the people who have read this have never of) insane? Hint: One of the best classic rockers you've never heard.

July 14 2010 at 11:03 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Tom C.'s comment
Jay Black

My self-esteem has been so pounded by three years of TV Squad commenters that I was actually thrilled it's possible to interpret "not that funny" as "at least a little bit funny".

That said, the point of the Ian Hunter joke is that anyone who thinks Cleveland Rocks can't be 100% sane. Of course writing it out like that doesn't help make my "at least a little bit funny" case very well.

July 15 2010 at 12:54 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Scott K.

In the end, to me, I now dislike Lebron because how he treated Cleveland during this. He's always been egotistical. He's always been big on having his name in the news. About being an icon. A business entity larger than himself.

But this time, he put his ego above the support of an entire city who desperately wanted him to come back. If he just announced at a press conference (and there is a big difference between a press conference and an hour-long tv show dedicated to himself) that he'll miss Cleveland, but this is an opportunity he can't pass up, people would have understood. As you said: Cleveland vs Miami is not a tough choice. He even took less money so he could win championships! We all know the Cavs have been horrible about giving him a team that he can win with. We would have understood and accepted that and moved on waiting for the inevitable string of championships.

Instead, he acted like he was bigger than the NBA and he broke up with the team and the entire city on a TV show all about himself. My favorite non-Phoenix Suns team and superstar? Kevin Durant and the Thunder. Added to my list of (now 4) teams I hate: the Heat. (The others are San Antonio and Los Angeles (of course) and Detroit (since forever).)

July 14 2010 at 6:38 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Scott K.'s comment
Jay Black

Totally agree about Durant. Instantly becomes the hero to Miami's trio of villains, right? (Though to be fair, I think I agree with Dave Damashek's backhanded compliment to Miami on Simmons's podcast yesterday: they're now the evil empire and there's something very fun and compelling about that).

To your other point: there is a difference emotionally between a live press conference and a live one hour TV special, but not really in presentation or in philosophy. I'm very interested in dissecting just what the difference is -- you and I both mentioned ego. I'm curious as to whether there is something else there that puts up a divide between the two (which I know sounds like media studios graduate course BS, but I think it's worth exploring...)

Great comment!

July 14 2010 at 7:09 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I think you're hilariously on point. His television escapade was about as entertaining as hearing Shaq rap.

July 14 2010 at 5:13 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I don't like it any more than you do but actually, it was Jim Gray's idea. Research is your friend.


July 14 2010 at 4:28 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Brad's comment
Jay Black

Should have made this more clear: it's the public perception that it was his idea, not the actual reality of the situation. That was less a research fail than a one more paragraph of explanation fail (not necessarily any better but...)

July 14 2010 at 4:38 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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