Posted by Neil Paine on September 3, 2009
Over at TrueHoop, Henry Abbott raises some interesting points about LeBron James' new autobiography -- co-written with Buzz Bissinger -- and talks about how James essentially blew an opportunity to tell his own story in a way we hadn't heard before (no small feat, considering a good deal of LeBron's formative years were played out before a national media audience). Instead, Henry argues, James' tale is stale, an "unnecessary" book that offers nothing we didn't already know already from the scores of LeBron bios already on the shelves. No chances are taken; everything is strictly by the numbers. Worse yet, it's apparently not all that difficult to know whose voice is telling the story -- James sometimes, but in other cases obviously Bissinger.
This isn't a phenomenon specific to LeBron James, of course; athletes have churned out ghost-written "autobiographies" ever since the media first started covering sporting events. But in light of Dunkgate earlier this summer, I don't think it's ever been more obvious how carefully crafted a megastar's public image is than it is for LeBron right now. Michael Jordan started the phenomenon, of course, but he still managed to feel like a real person despite hawking Gatorade, Hanes, and Ballpark Franks... At the time, you never seriously questioned what was genuine and what wasn't -- perhaps out of naivete, but perhaps because MJ did actually possess a lot of the charisma and personal magnetism he displayed in his "public persona".
Today's stars have appropriated the Jordan script, though, and it's painfully obvious that they're forcing what fit MJ like a glove on themselves, simply for marketing purposes. This is not to say that current players like James or Kobe Bryant have no charisma (clearly they do), or that they're presenting personae completely out of step with their true selves. But what was only vaguely suspected with Jordan (is he really like what we see in those Nike ads?) has become overtly telegraphed in the way athletes are portrayed in the modern media, to the point that the "managed image" is the default expectation, and we're actually surprised when a player steps outside the boundaries established by his PR team.
So the fact that LeBron James co-wrote a bland, uncontroversial autobiography devoid of new insight isn't really the issue here. Rather, it's that we neither expected nor demanded anything more that's so damning about the way megastar athletes are presented to us in the post-Jordan era.