Sports·Opinion

As with all media, messaging from sports stars like LeBron James must be consumed with discretion

LeBron James and Deion Sanders are free to complain about the media, but when you boast about your social media reach, and run a production company, you are the media.

Social media allows athletes to use same spin they accuse traditional media of using

LeBron James asked media this week why he wasn't being asked questions about a controversial photo featuring NFL owner Jerry Jones. (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

This is a column by Morgan Campbell, who writes opinion for CBC Sports. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Last week, LeBron James, the NBA star and production company president, ended a post-game news conference by tossing a question back at reporters.

"I got one question for you guys before you guys leave. I was thinking when I was on my way over here, I was wondering why I haven't gotten a question from you guys about the Jerry Jones photo," James said. "But when the Kyrie thing was going on, you guys were quick to ask us questions about that."

The photo in question was published in the Washington Post, and shows a teenage Jones, now the owner of the NFL's Dallas Cowboys, among an all-white mob opposing the integration of North Little Rock High School in 1957.

Isn't this masterful stuff from James, a former high-school prodigy who has essentially grown up in front of reporters' microphones? Don't you admire James's black-belt level verbal jiu-jitsu, putting writers on defence while highlighting a glaring double standard? This is important work, forcing the media to focus on an important story instead of gossip-column sideshows.

Right?

Not really, but hold on.

This past weekend here came Deion Sanders, the two-sport superstar turned college football coach, leaving his previous job at Jackson State University for a higher-paying post at the University of Colorado Boulder. Video clips from his provisional farewell to Jackson State players (he'll coach them in the Celebration Bowl next weekend), and his introduction to staff and players in Colorado, hit the internet immediately.

One video was titled, "The Part of Deion Sanders 'Exit Meeting With His Team' THEY DON'T WANT YOU TO SEE." The implication here is that the media curated the Sanders footage to make "Coach Prime," appear more opportunistic and less empathetic than he really is.

Two sports superstars, and two examples of the media missing the point.

Except that James used that same rant to highlight his "platform" — he has 52.5 million Twitter followers. And last Saturday's glut of Sanders content? Much of it came from Well Off Media, the outlet Sanders himself controls. 

James and Sanders are, of course, free to complain about the media, but when you boast about your social media reach, and run a production company, you are the media. Celebrities understand that reality, even if the audience doesn't always recognize it. Inside that knowledge gap, everything famous folks and civilians alike resent about the traditional press can flourish — bias, spin, self-serving half-truths and more.

Whose truth?

We're living in the #MoreThanAnAthlete era, where sports stars are encouraged to join important conversations. James has more social media followers than the Washington Post and NPR combined, and he knows that one comment or tweet could drive an entire 24-hour news cycle. 

But when superstars use their voices, the rest of us still have to use our brains, and figure out whether we're consuming the truth, or just their truth.

In James's case, the alleged double standard is just your everyday false equivalence. Writers asked about Irving because he and James are peers and former teammates, both members of the NBA Players' Association. It makes sense to wonder how the Nets' outside-the-CBA sanctions on Irving resonated with fellow union members.

And Jones?

He owns an NFL team, and has no direct, obvious connection to James. If a reporter didn't already know James was invested in the Jerry Jones photos, they wouldn't have much impetus to ask. They could ask anyway, hoping to luck into a juicy answer… but why?

The Washington Post published a picture of a teenaged Jones, above, among an all-white mob opposing the integration of North Little Rock High School in 1957. (Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

When you're one-on-one with an athlete, and know something about their interests, wide-ranging, outside-the-lines questions can yield insightful responses. When I worked the baseball beat, I could draw players into conversations about the overlap between sports and politics in Cuba, or Venezuela, or whether merengue makes better walk-up music than salsa or reggaeton.

But to do it at a press conference, full of reporters on tight deadlines and players eager to fulfil their press obligation as quickly as possible, is reckless on several levels. If the athlete gives a thoughtful answer, it belongs to every reporter in the room, and not just to you. But if the athlete isn't interested in your nuanced topic — and most times they're not — you'll get a quizzical look and a non-answer. Every dud question wastes everyone's time.

Unless James is suggesting that reporters routinely solicit his opinion on current events during post-game press briefings, maybe using the beat writer's favourite rhetorical device — the "talk about" non-question.

"LeBron, talk about the FTX collapse."

"Talk about quantitative easing."

"Since we're in Toronto, talk about the Ontario Line transit stop at Osgoode Hall."

Do you want that? Every night? Even if you think you do, you don't.

PR misstep

And if James wants reporters to discuss issues that are important to him, he can mention them on social media, or put it on a t-shirt, like he did after Eric Garner's death at the hands of a New York City police officer.

In short, because he has the platform, he can say it himself.

If he needs an example, there was Sanders, with his videographer trailing him, strutting into a Colorado meeting room full of nervous young men. Face to face for the first time, Sanders urged them to jump ship, so he could replace them with his own recruits.

"I'm coming. And when I get here, it's gonna be change," Sanders said. "So I want y'all to get ready to go ahead and jump in the [transfer] portal and do whatever you're gonna get because more of you [transfer] the more room you make."

Sanders's one PR misstep: asking the players for a call-and-response after revealing he planned to cut most of them. Better to get them to chant with you while they're still star-struck, then pivot to the grim business of trimming the roster.

By then, Sanders, who went 27-5 in three seasons at Jackson State, had already won the news conference. Go back and watch it. Short on football specifics; long on smiles and swagger and shout-outs to God. 

Later, in the team meeting, a player asked Sanders about off-season training. Sanders acknowledged that he intended to "make some of you quit."

Talk like that foreshadows brutal winter workouts that aren't designed to prepare players for football. Those sessions sometimes make headlines for sending athletes to the hospital with rhabdomyolysis, where your muscles essentially disintegrate from overwork. Seems to happen somewhere every winter. Is 2023 Colorado's year?

I hope not.

Either way, it sounds like a new boss threatening to endanger a vulnerable workforce. But Sanders has a resumé and charm, and a media outlet on his side, and so can make an objectively sleazy situation sound normal, harmless and justified. 

When you have a platform and a delivery system, that kind of spin is possible. Most athletes — and certainly all superstars — have access to both.

So they can complain about the media missing the point, and we can listen. But none of us has to buy it. They're media too, and I encourage you to consume their content the same way you consume anybody else's. Mine included.

With discretion.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Morgan Campbell

Senior Contributor

Morgan Campbell joins CBC Sports as our first Senior Contributor after 18 standout years at the Toronto Star. In 2004 he won the National Newspaper Award for "Long Shots," a serial narrative about a high school basketball team from Scarborough. Later created, hosted and co-produced "Sportonomics," a weekly video series examining the business of Sport. And he spent his last two years at the Star authoring the Sports Prism initiative, a weekly feature covering the intersection of sports, race, business, politics and culture. Morgan is also a TedX lecturer, and a frequent contributor to several CBC platforms, including the extremely popular and sorely-missed Sports Culture Panel on CBC Radio Q. His work has been featured in the New York Times, the Literary Review of Canada, and the Best Canadian Sports Writing anthology.

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