The word “traitor” has a powerful connotation, but that’s how basketball fans in Cleveland and across the country are describing LeBron James. The two-time MVP of the National Basketball Association surprised the nation on July 8 when he announced — live on ESPN — that he was leaving his native Northeast Ohio and the Cleveland Cavaliers to play for the Miami Heat.
“It’s all about how he left,” said Bud Shaw, sports columnist for The Plain Dealer, Ohio’s largest newspaper. “A lot of people thought he was doing so to rebrand himself as ‘the hometown guy’ dedicated to bringing a title to Cleveland.”
James Roop, APR, Fellow PRSA, president of Cleveland-based Roop & Co., also criticized the way James handled his departure.
“The least he could have done was to quietly inform the organization that’s bent over backward to coddle him that he was going elsewhere, so they could have begun planning for the next season,” Roop says.
Sports and PR pros have panned James’ handling of his free agency. The 25-year-old James went from a pre-decision interview on “Larry King Live” to appearing on numerous “Most Disliked Figures in Sports” lists. Sports news website The Bleacher Report named him the Most Hated Athlete in Sports, noting that “everybody is going to be rooting against James for the rest of his life.”
Long-time TV director Don Ohlmeyer, now ESPN’s ombudsman, criticized his cable network for airing an elaborate special called “The Decision” about James’ choice. Basketball fans in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles — other cities bidding for James — were dismayed by the result.
“This may be the Oscar-winning performance of the decade for arrogance,” says Dallas-based Merrie Spaeth, who coaches top corporate executives on media relations. “James thinks of marketing only as advancing himself. He’s quickly gotten himself into the [same] position as Tiger Woods — the only people Woods had around him were carefully selected, telling him only what he wanted to hear.”
James’ free-agent fiasco also re-ignited a question about pro athletes’ priorities: Is “winning it all” more important than anything else?
He adorned the cover of Sports Illustrated at age 17. He was the first player chosen in the 2003 NBA draft. He signed a $90 million endorsement contract with Nike before playing a game in the pros. He received red-carpet treatment from Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert and the team’s fans.
Fans idolized James, especially in championship-starved Cleveland, whose last major sports title was the 1964 NFL champion Browns.
“LeBron’s been pampered ever since his basketball career started to take off,” says Kenny Roda, a talk-show host on ESPN radio in Cleveland.
Shaw received overriding negative reactions from Cavaliers fans anytime he criticized James in a column. “He was the best thing to ever happen to basketball in this town,” he says. “His plusses far outweighed his minuses.”
Branding and imaging from James’ many endorsements reinforced his nickname “King James,” which LeBron received in high school. He’s in the top five on both Forbes “Fab 40” and Sports Illustrated “Fortunate 50” list of top-earning athletes. Nike launched a “Witness” campaign centered around James, including an oversized poster on a building near the Cavs’ home Quicken Loans arena. (Workers removed it two days after James’ departure, and fans started a “Quitness” counter-campaign.)
However, James didn’t reciprocate the love from the locals. Many Cleveland fans point to a 2007 baseball playoff incident as a portent of things to come. James received VIP treatment for himself and his entourage at an Indians-Yankees playoff baseball game in Cleveland. Wearing a Yankees cap, James swore fan loyalty to the New York team during a live national TV interview.
Joann Killeen, APR, Fellow PRSA, and president of the Killeen Furtney Group in Los Angeles, thinks James needs counsel independent of friends and sycophants. “Who will advise him?” she asks. “Does he appreciate how his personal life plays into the endorsement game?”
What James needs next
In the social media era, James immediately drew heavy criticism in blogs and comments all over the Internet about his decision. Even his own tweets have inflamed opinions, and comments he’s made in interviews since “The Decision” indicate that James doesn’t understand the ramifications of his actions.
“The move will hurt his career and image,” Roop says. “He gains nothing in terms of a platform. Instead of being the ‘king,’ he is merely a prince … playing second fiddle to [Dwayne] Wade.”
Spaeth adds that growing media attention brings greater scrutiny. “James is also setting himself up to go down,” she explains. “If you have no boundaries — unless you develop some yourself — you will have problems. [James] is a sitting target for anyone with a camera phone. When you set yourself up like this, [the media] will get you.”
Pointing to his self-proclaimed desire to become a billion-dollar athlete, Killeen believes James has to become strategic, listen to independent counsel, and move beyond the hype.
“James’ actions will speak louder than anything he does in basketball, including wearing an NBA championship ring,” she says. “He needs to think beyond today and start planning for his future. He should focus on his actions on and off the court and realize how today’s short-term gains are going to impact him long term.”