Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Price of Narcissism

Last week, one of the dominant sports-related conversations in the U.S. was the imminent decision by LeBron James -- at 25, already a two-time Most Valuable Player in the National Basketball Association and one of the most talented basketball players we've ever seen -- regarding which team he would choose as his new employer.  As an unrestricted free agent, this was his right, to consider offers from any team interested in hiring him and select the one that suited him best.

By almost every consideration, this promised to be a truly historic moment.  Aside from the phenomenal amount of money he was certain to get from any team with whom he signed, James has going to be deciding where he would take the truly global brand he has cultivated over the past several years as a result of his dazzling play and exciting personality.  The addition of LeBron James to nearly any roster in the league would make that team an immediate contender for a championship and present a new range of marketing opportunities for both the NBA in general and James in particular.

But a funny thing happened on the way to history . . . LeBron fell into the trap of narcissism and he is now paying the price.

As has been well-documented in the past couple of days, LeBron chose to turn his decision about which team would win the King James Sweepstakes into an hour-long TV special on ESPN.  During this LeBron-a-Thon, he announced that he was going to sign with the Miami Heat, spurning offers from five other teams, including his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers.

Very few sports fans outside of Cleveland -- and frankly, even few of the fair-minded fans inside Cleveland -- had a major problem with James deciding to accept a job offer from a new team and part ways with the Cavaliers.  Most of us get it . . . if we were as good at our jobs and as in demand from employers in our industry as LeBron is in the NBA, we'd have to consider all of our options too.  But the manner in which he composed himself over this whole deal, which was punctuated by the abusrdity of a 60-minute TV special to issue a five-second announcement, has struck a nerve in our culture.
In the words of Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke, "LeBron James dragged the Cleveland Cavaliers to the center table of the most crowded, well-lighted joint on the sports landscape Thursday night, then loudly dumped them on the spot."

Even LeBron's choice of words for first letting making known his decision -- "I've decided to take my talents to South Beach" -- were screaming with self-adoration.  He's taking his talents there . . . not that he's made a careful business decision or that he's come to a difficult conclusion or that he's filled with mixed emotions -- but he's packing up his brilliance and blessing a new organization with his presence.  He's taking them to South Beach . . . not that he's selected the Miami Heat organization or that he'll be agreeing to terms on a contract with the Miami franchise -- but he's headed for one of the hippest, coolest party spots in the U.S.

Is it any wonder that most of the nation has been put off by this display from a guy whom so many of us once admired for his skills and team-oriented approach to the game?
Consider the results of a poll by Two in three respondents say they now regard LeBron as an egomaniac, and whereas 77% say they had a positive opinion about LeBron prior to the free agency soap opera, just 17% say they have a positive view of LeBron now.  That is the sound of the King James brand taking a massive hit from the American consumer.
Some folks say that none of this was LeBron's idea, he just got steered wrong by his inner circle -- but we all know that the person with his name on the billboard is the one who has to make the decisions and take responsibility for the consequences.  Others point out that the TV special was a good thing because it generated funds for the Boys & Girls Clubs -- but I have a funny feeling that there are six NBA owners out there who would have been happy to match whatever few bucks were generated that night in appreciation for LeBron's signature on the dotted line.
The thing is, for the most part, Americans don't begrudge the career success of any of their fellow citizens and we're happy to hear stories about young men like LeBron rise to prominence.  We also have no problem with superstar athletes exercising their free market rights to choose an employer for themselves and to make as much money as the market allows.  What we don't like, though, is when one of these fellow citizens who has been so blessed by the free market turns around and humiliates his hometown with the largest and brightest spotlight he can find.  Dunk on your opponents in the game of basketball, but don't dunk on five cities -- including the one that we all know needs you so badly -- on live national TV.
It's amazing how long it takes for an athlete's brand to be built up, but how quickly it can collapse.  In the span of one month, LeBron James has gone from one of the most popular figures in professional sports to yet another rich dude with tons of talent and no humility.
I've read a lot of columns, editorials and blog posts over the past few days that have tried to place the LeBron James affair in the context of a broader cultural trend toward narcissism and self-adoration, as if to say that the LeBron-a-Thon is the model we're following as a society.
I reject that argument on the simplest of evidence . . . just take a look at what has happened to LeBron's public image over the past 72 hours.  He is paying the price of narcissism from a society that still prefers for its heroes to accomplish great things on the field of play and then show some good manners when they collect their paychecks.

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