The worst moment of a night full of bad moments tonight came at the end, after most disgusted fans had turned ESPN off, bile still sloshing in their gums, when LeBron James, 45 minutes after announcing he would play for the Miami Heat, returned to the camera with Jim Gray and the head of the Apollo Group, which owns and runs the University of Phoenix, one of the primary sponsors of the evening’s festivities. At this point, we had seen the pain of the Cleveland Cavaliers fans, who had been so cruelly toyed with for weeks now, and we had seen Gray and Michael Wilbon, shockingly, so inept and seemingly disinterested in anything resembling a follow-up question. Fans of teams in the LeBron Derby were disappointed — though no one as much as Cavs fans — but mostly they were flabbergasted by the tone deafness of the whole enterprise. LeBron James was a man breaking hearts across the country, and there he was, with an old bald white man peddling for-profit online education, and a short smug onetime sportscaster now just happy to be on TV. There they all were, trying to sell us something. After that. It was hawking souvenirs before the wake was over. And no one onscreen seemed to find this wrong.
Loving sports, by definition, requires a certain suspension of disbelief and logic. We are all pouring our hearts and souls into cheering for men (and women) who do not care about us, who are not like us, who are not the type of people we would ever associate with (or even meet) in real life. We deify them because it is hard to find people to deify in the real world: Sports spans every age group, ethnic group, political persuasion, and all else that serves to divide us, separate us. We cheer for athletes because sports does not matter, not really. We cheer because sports is, ultimately, harmless.
And we trust that they will at least pretend. We trust that they will recognize the ultimate ludicrousness of this whole enterprise, that these are grown men wearing tank tops, throwing a ball up and around, running on wood, that this all exists because we allow it to exist, that the illusion must be maintained. We trust that they understand how good they have it, how much we give them, against our own self-interest. We trust that they are not laughing at us.
That trust felt broken tonight. Not because LeBron James went to the Heat, even though he referred to his destination as “South Beach,” not “the Miami Heat and their fans.” Not because LeBron James didn’t go to the Knicks, even though of all the cities he mentioned enjoying during this free agent “courtship,” New York was the one he omitted. Not even because LeBron was so, so cruel to Cleveland, not once thanking the fans who made him into what he was, the fans who have to wonder if their absurd investment in their sports franchises will ever be rewarded. No, tonight, it felt like everyone involved — LeBron, ESPN, Bing, the University of Phoenix, Stuart Scott, the man who once chastised fans for having the audacity to boo, Jim freaking Gray — treated the millions of people watching like stupid, mindless consumers, empty lemmings ready to follow Sport into the abyss. Here, here are the Boys & Girls Club props. Here, here is your search engine. Here, here is your online college, Here, here is your Athletic Hero. Eat. Eat. Consume. You like it. You love it. You’ll always come back for more.
They’re surely right, of course. But never has it been laid more bare, and never did it feel so empty. It felt like a break, the moment when the tide crested, when we looked at the games, and their players, and ourselves, and wondered: Why in the world are we watching these awful people? It was a question impossible to answer.
LeBron James, thanks to this debacle, will never be the same. (That he appears unable to understand why is the precise reason why.) ESPN, it feels, will never quite be the same: There were surely thousands of employees there who rubbed their eyes, aghast at what they were watching, guilty to be a part of it. The NBA, the hunger laid bare and the wound gaping for all to see, may never be the same.
And the fear is that we won’t be the same. The fear is that we’ve truly seen the ugly, dark heart of sports, and we won’t be able to come back. It feels extremely stupid to be a sports fan. It feels pointless. None of this felt harmless tonight. And we allowed this to happen. Perhaps this is what we deserve. Perhaps this will be good for us, all of us.
Let us all just hope everybody feels better in the morning. Some morning, someday.