|Tuesday, December 17
Did 'LeBron Mania' go too far?
By Jay Bilas
Special to ESPN.com
A national television audience finally saw high school phenom LeBron James up close and personal.
The decision by ESPN to show a high school basketball game, however, created a spirited debate about the appropriateness of the event's coverage levels, and whether James and his high school compatriots were being over-hyped, even exploited, for the almighty dollar.
There is no debate about the young player's talent level. Watching James lead St. Vincent-St. Mary to an upset of No. 1 Oak Hill Academy proved, without reasonable argument, he is the best high school player in America this year. I'll go so far as to say James is the finest 17-year old basketball prospect that I have seen in the past 20 years.
His current talent level, ability and future potential is clearly worthy of being covered by national media outlets, scouted by professional teams, coveted by marketers of products, and pursued by game promoters and shoe companies that hope to make him the next Jordan or Iverson as a shoe pitchman.
The relevant question that must be asked, however, is what level of coverage, coveting and pursuit is appropriate for a 17-year old kid playing high school basketball? And who bears the responsibility of making certain that this kid is fairly treated?
Here some of my thoughts to consider as you decide the issues that have been raised out of the LeBron James game.
James is being exploited primarily because of the rules governing his current circumstances. James is the engine driving a major money-making train, and he gets nothing from the use of his name and image, except for publicity that could ultimately be harmful to his development. James and his advisors have little or no say in determining when and where he plays, in front of whom or how many, and for what purpose.
While Sarah Hughes, Venus and Serena Williams, and Tiger Woods were all viable and successful young stars who received great attention, their situations were very different than that of James and other high school basketball players.
I went to high school with tennis star Tracy Austin, who won the U.S. Open at age 15. Austin had the choice of whether to play in local events, amateur events or on the international stage in major championships. It was her choice as to how many tournaments she played, and whether or not she would accept money to play. She played as an individual, and chose to be separate from the high school we attended with respect to her individual competition.
Austin and the other aforementioned athletes each play individual sports, and can pick and choose the level of participation they and their advisors deemed appropriate for their particular circumstances and needs. The events those individuals played in were being televised and promoted because of the events themselves, not simply because of an individual kid.
If Woods wanted to play in just a few pro tournaments per season, he was free to do so, and free to accept the endorsement money that came his way. It was his choice whether to play in televised events, such as the U.S. Amateur, and those events were being televised and covered whether he played in them or not.
Hughes might have been only 15 when she won Olympic gold, but she and her parents chose to pursue that dream, and she was able to benefit directly from her participation. Again, Hughes could also pick and choose the number of events in which she wanted to compete.
James has no such luxury of choice. He either plays high school basketball or he doesn't. The NBA will not allow him to be drafted until his high school class has graduated, and his high school rules do not allow him to take money and still remain eligible to play.
His options are simple: go overseas and play professionally, play high school ball as an unpaid amateur, or sit out the high school season altogether. The last option would shield James from injury, and allow him to hire an agent, sign endorsement deals, and fully devote himself to preparation for the NBA.
James is not the only one affected by his status as teen icon. Unlike Woods, Hughes and the Williams sisters, James participates in a team sport. While James is a manchild that may be prepared to play as a man and with men, and to be marketed similarly, he plays alongside 10 or so other young kids who simply signed up to play high school basketball. As teammates of "King James", those kids have to go where he goes, play when he plays, and be under the same microscope he is under. When the media horde comes to see James, those kids get trampled, too. While James is being exploited, so are his young teammates and their families.
The bottom line is professional sports, especially individual ones, are vastly different that high school sports. As such, they require different treatment.
It is undeniable that the media will cover stories and subjects of interest to the public, and that the media will endeavor to promote these stories and subjects to attract the most attention in the ratings game. Companies like ESPN are in the business of covering sports and sports related stories, and it is perfectly acceptable for ESPN to televise a high school game.
In my judgment, television did not "exploit" LeBron James. No television outlet has the right to broadcast one of James' games without the consent of the school, which owns the game. James' tiny Catholic school, St. Vincent-St. Mary, contracted with a promoter to sell the game to a broadcast company. ESPN stepped forward to buy the rights to broadcast the game.
All those who were present at the game would agree that it was quite a spectacle, and there is reasonable argument on both sides as to whether is was appropriate at the high school level. In general, there is nothing inappropriate about televising a high school game. However, the level of coverage, and the impact it has upon the game and its participants determines when a line has been crossed.
There is such a thing as "too much, too soon," and there are messages sent from events such as these. However, these issues must first be dealt with by parents, school administrators, teachers and coaches. They must decide what is appropriate for their students -- and what is too much.
In response to criticism regarding James' game being televised on ESPN2, some have argued that because networks carry the Little League World Series or the McDonald's All-American Game, there should be no problem with televising a high school game featuring a potential superstar like James. First, the networks carry the Little League World Series and the McDonald's Game because of the games themselves, and they do it annually and without regard to who is playing in those games. Young kids can point to those games and know that they, too, could someday play in those events.
If a network were to televise the Little League World Series out of the blue, move it to a bigger stadium, and show in it in prime time simply because of the participation of one young phenom, the entire feel of the event would be different, and perhaps feel inappropriate. The same goes for the LeBron James game. Was a high school game televised, or was a high school kid showcased at the expense of the game? The answer is unclear, and generates vigorous argument.
No one involved the coverage of the LeBron James game said or did anything that was in any way inappropriate, when viewed individually. However, when taken as a whole, it is reasonable, albeit arguable, to say the entire spectacle was over the top.
Consider that ESPN devoted an incredible amount of promotion to this game. The game was promoted days before the event, featured on SportsCenter, staffed by Dick Vitale, Bill Walton, Dan Shulman and myself, followed by a half-hour show devoted to LeBron James, cross-promoted by a cover story on ESPN The Magazine on LeBron James, and wrapped up on SportsCenter after the game. During the game, not one defense was identified, not one offensive scheme was discussed, and the game's other players often came in and out of the game without being identified and scored without being acknowledged.
The entire broadcast was centered on James' every move.
ESPN was not alone in the way it covered James' game against Oak Hill. USA Today put James on its cover, not of the Sports section, but on the front cover.
Sports Illustrated put James on the cover last year, calling him "The Chosen One".
A multitude of other national media came to the event to cover James, not to mention the fact that ESPN was covering James.
But, arguably, ESPN's marketing and promotional muscle alerted other media to take notice and begin covering the game and James. The coverage level was ratcheted up by ESPN's presence, and the temperature of the event was raised to fever level as a result.
The issue is not whether television is showing a game or a kid, it is whether the media is responsible in setting the appropriate tone in the coverage, and whether the right message is being sent. What message did the coverage of James send? Was that message fitting for the level of competition?
The message from this coverage is not aimed at James. There is no way to hide the talent of James, or shield him from the spotlight. If he keeps his head on straight, and barring catastrophic injury, he will make more money this spring to last him several lifetimes. Whether he becomes the player many project him to be is an open question, and he must continue to drive himself and improve, but he is as prepared to make the jump to the NBA as any high school kid can be. Although he may have a swelled head from the attention, as any 17-year-old would, he should come out of this just fine, given the right guidance and support.
I am concerned more about the message to those who follow behind James, who may share his dream but not his talent. Those who are competitive with James may feel, because they experienced some success against him, perhaps they too are prepared to spurn school and go for the money. Perhaps next year's No. 1 rated player will assume he, too, should receive James-like attention and be fooled that the NBA is his destination after high school.
Some would argue that such issues are not my concern, but the concern of the kid, his parents and the market. Of course, it is the right of every player to decide whether to go to school or to pursue another avenue in life. However, because the player has that right, the media is not absolved of responsibility to deal with that player and his prospects in an appropriate fashion relative to his age, and also relative to the impact such dealings would have upon other kids and on the game itself.
As long as comments made and images shown of high school players are appropriate and tempered, I have no problem with high school games being televised. But make no mistake, it is up to the adults in charge of the youngsters' education and development to regulate and control access to, and exposure of, its students.
A high school basketball game is not entertainment. It can be "entertaining", but the presence of seats, tickets and interest does not make high school games "entertainment". High school sports are a very important part of the educational process, and in the development of young people. To suggest that high school sports are entertainment is to suggest that, by logical extension, the students are entertainers. That is a risky concept.
The primary responsibility in this situation lies with James' high school. It was St. Vincent-St. Mary that decided to give its games to a promoter to sell to television, negotiate appearance fees, move its games to bigger arenas and have its games broadcast on a local pay-per-view basis. James' high school has the responsibility to decide whether playing a national schedule, accepting money for playing, and putting its students into the glare of public spotlight is in keeping with its mission statement. Unfortunately, there is no guidebook to help the people in charge determine what is right and fitting when dealing with a young superstar in a team sport.
Of course, the media has significant responsibility to make certain that its coverage is balanced, fair and appropriate. Just because "people will watch it", doesn't mean it is the proper thing to cover. The media bears more responsibility than to simply let the market determine the direction of its moral compass.
Similarly, just because it is appropriate to cover doesn't mean that it is appropriate to cover at any level or tone. Covering James was not wrong or inappropriate. However, I understand the argument that the level of coverage may have set an inappropriate tone. It may have been more appropriate to make James the subject of a SportsCenter feature instead of televising his high school game using resources that are seldom thrown at a college or pro game.
Was it too much? Did it cross the line? Maybe not, but it is unquestionably getting closer to the line.
Again, there was nothing wrong with covering LeBron James, but was he covered because the public was clamoring for him, or did the public watch because the media blitzed them with promotion and fanfare? If James was being covered as being the best schoolboy player in the nation, that is fine. But does the best schoolboy player require that much coverage, fanfare and hyperbole? Would it be more appropriate to wait until he has declared himself into a pro?
The truth is, if people will watch LeBron James play for St. Vincent-St. Mary, his games will be on television if his high school administration allows them to be televised. The truth is, the media is not equipped to make decisions that are in the best interests of its subjects. The people who need to decide these issues are the high schools, the high school athletic federations, and the parents of the students.
Everyone needs to decide what is in the best interests of the students, not what will make them the most money.
Bilas is a former assistant coach and player at Duke who now serves as a college basketball analyst for ESPN.