(I urge you not to read any more of this column if you aren't interested in me or my ESPN suspension. Seriously. Go away now. Please don't read this. I don't want you to waste your time. This is uncomfortably self-involved and makes it hard to defend myself against those who say I'm too look-at-me. But there are some funny and mildly interesting things here if you are interested in my ESPN suspension.)
I found myself, a little bit by accident and a little bit not, at the center of a funny national sports mess last week. I chose to have some fun in the corporate-sponsored cathedral we've made of sports. The episode became a blasphemy, and I was made to pay a two-day penance for my sins. It was a suspension I earned and deserved, by the way, but we'll get to that soon enough.
The whole experience was turbulent and endlessly entertaining madness. And it worked out for me a lot better than it did for my bosses, though it worked out for them, too. In retrospect, though, the experience was in keeping with my entire sports outlook, irreverently viewing a fun-and-games world I believe most people view way, way too reverently. But let me tell you how this unfolded.
We were talking one day on the radio about an idea The Ticket's morning show in Miami had about buying a full-page ad in a Cleveland newspaper that read, "You're welcome, LeBron" because, since leaving, James has never really thanked Miami Heat fans for backing him.
This seemed funny to me. Even though I don't agree with it at all.
I don't think LeBron James owes Miami anything, not even a thank you. He fulfilled his contract with regal grace and went home. I get that, as someone who has never left Miami, the only city I've ever loved. You are allowed to be hurt and angry about this as a South Floridian, but I am not. I enjoyed watching his excellence, realize that Miami lost him the same way Miami got him, and don't get irrationally invested in where a millionaire entertainer decides to put his headquarters.
But my radio co-host Jon Weiner and I were talking about it on air, and my friend Greg Cote thought a full-page ad in Cleveland would cost $100,000. I said this couldn't be so in 2014, given the state of the newspaper industry and the Cleveland economy. We argued.
So our co-worker Allyson Turner -- who would soon become "my spokeswoman" in subsequent stories, even though this is absurd because, you know, why the hell would I need a spokeswoman? -- called to get an estimate to find out who was right.
The Cleveland newspapers said that they would never, ever take my filthy, dirty, evil, money for this! Never! NEVER! They released this sanctimony to the press, wrote stories about it and gave quotes about doing the right thing. Even though I wasn't, um, offering money. They were angrily declining money I never offered for a cause I don't believe in and an idea that wasn't even mine.
This, of course, created an even bigger stir, with lots of people writing and talking about what the newspapers had done and wouldn't allow me to do ... even though the newspapers hadn't done what they said they had done and I didn't even want to do what they said I wanted to do. More newspapers and blogs now showed an actual mock-up of a "You're Welcome, LeBron" ad I had allegedly created and allegedly had rejected ... even though it was made by some stranger on Twitter ... and I'd never even seen it until the newspapers and blogs were claiming that I had submitted it to them. This mushroomed anyway, all over social media, traveling like a lit fuse, a fake story with a fake ad, even though the story wasn't my idea, wasn't accurate and wasn't news.
So we ended up getting more publicity for the ad without paying for the ad and without ever intending to buy the ad than we would have if we'd actually spent money on the ad. Newspapers, man. Throwing yesterday's news in your bushes today, and ultimately giving us for free that for which they refuse to accept pay.
But the way Cleveland's newspapers and fans puffed out their chests about all this interested me as a capitalist and a journalist and annoyed me as a fan of newspapers, absurdity and of this city of Miami where I've always lived. That was some quick scampering done to the top of the soapbox to protect LeBron from the soul-selling money I didn't offer for an ad I wasn't going to run for a cause I didn't believe in. So I got to thinking: Would it be funny to take that money -- the estimate we finally found was $12,025 -- and pour it into anarchy and fun and nonsense to make even more of a joke and spectacle of the whole thing?
We decided on billboards in James' hometown of Akron and a plane to fly over his Friday homecoming trailing a sign: "You're welcome, LeBron. Love, Miami." Those billboards in Akron are cheap, man. Cheaper than a newspaper ad. And you get them for a month. We got six of them. Thus began another run of "news" and "scandal," of course. The Akron Beacon-Journal put the billboard on its front page.
To recap, this message was now on the front of the newspaper for free because the newspaper had decided it wouldn't put an ad inside for money -- money I didn't offer for a cause I didn't believe in but was now advocating simply because they made such a show of not taking money I didn't offer.
ESPN didn't find this quite as funny as I did. I hadn't checked with my supervisors. I had gone rogue with a local stunt in a national venue in a rah-rah way that isn't really how ESPN does business. So I was told to suspend the plane flight and whatever shenanigans we had planned for LeBron's Akron homecoming. I said I would not and could not because we were building this up for days on the radio to a crescendo and to simply stop talking about it and not do it with no mention would be dumb, inauthentic, confusing and not me. I was polite about it, but I was insubordinate. I refused to budge. We were flying the plane. So I was suspended, as I should have been. If I'd actually believed in any of this, I might have flown the plane anyway, even while on suspension, but this would be a pretty silly cause for which to lose your job.
What happened next was interesting and instructive, too.
We're always taking sides in sports. A decision-maker with more investment and more information than us makes a decision. And we pick it apart and pounce as sport amid sports, even though we are usually less informed than the people at the center of the spectacle who have more riding on these decisions.
I say all this because everyone sided with me in the matter of LeBatard vs. ESPN. I mean, everyone. I'm used to being unpopular. I'm used to having opinions people don't like. I've never had this many people behind me on an issue ... even though I didn't believe in my actual cause ... and even though I understand exactly why ESPN had to suspend me because, you know, I have more information than the people applauding me, and I was insubordinate.
Now, we can have a different discussion about whether ESPN was too self-serious about protecting its brand in this instance from harmless billboards, a plane and general fun-having. I obviously think so. I got suspended in part for thinking so. Billboards and planes -- what's the big deal? I don't think I should have been forced into being insubordinate.
But it was interesting to watch the outrage spread on my behalf ... even though I wasn't outraged or even wronged. It was such an easy position for me to take, pro-fun, the media giant crushing the little man and his little ol' voice and freedom. The outpouring was overwhelming, labor shaking a fist at management, and some of it even came from people who don't like me.
This fun and ridiculous stunt all turned out to be accidental performance art that created media buzz and ratings in a benign way while sticking to my irreverent beliefs about not genuflecting in the cathedral we've made of fun and games.
So I say this a little bit scared and sheepish and suspended but:
You're Welcome, ESPN?