Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Poynter Review [Print without images]

Friday, July 8, 2011
Has ESPN learned from 'The Decision'?

By Kelly McBride
Poynter Review Project

A year ago today, ESPN aired "The Decision."

It was the first chapter of a story about hubris that unfolded throughout the entire NBA season, ending a year later with LeBron James still lacking a championship ring and ESPN’s name and reputation forever linked to the debacle.

Since then, the most famous quote from that night, “I'm going to take my talents to South Beach,” has become an oft-spoofed meme on YouTube, a common punchline for late night comedians and even, umm, another euphemism for a favorite pastime of teenage boys.

It was one of the most viewed, and one of the most hated, moments of ESPN television. For ESPN critics, “The Decision” is now shorthand for the network’s arrogance. It doesn’t matter what disgruntled viewers are objecting to -- golf, tennis or baseball -- when they voice their complaint in the Poynter Review Project mailbag, they routinely reference "The Decision" as evidence that ESPN just doesn’t get it.

So a year later, what has the network learned?

No one we spoke with at ESPN suggests that if they had a do-over, they would reject "The Decision" outright. Instead they talk about doing it better.

“I don’t have any regrets,” said Norby Williamson, executive vice president of studio and event production at ESPN, and one of the architects of "The Decision." “It was a huge news event. We were committed to covering it. We would go after it with the same energy and passion.”

Williamson acknowledged in a phone interview that he would execute the broadcast differently today. But he didn’t want to go into detail.

“We still disagree here over how we should have handled it,” said Vince Doria, ESPN's senior vice president and director of news. “If our goal was to get people to watch television, we succeeded."

Doria told us ESPN’s biggest mistake was to try to make "The Decision" look like one seamless show. Viewers couldn’t tell the difference between the part that LeBron and crew controlled and the part that ESPN controlled.

“We should have done it as a press conference, then transitioned into our own show,” Doria said.

"The Decision" and the criticism that followed shined a light on the dual -- some would say schizophrenic -- nature of ESPN. On the one hand it is a journalism organization, specializing in sports news. On the other, it is a production company, covering, and at times staging, big events. Our predecessor, then-ESPN ombudsman Don Ohlmeyer, did an excellent job detailing the dueling loyalties that collided in "The Decision."

Other ironies sprouted from the production. James’ notoriety spiked and stayed high. The crowd loves to hate him. And ESPN benefits from his status as a villain. For example, four of the five most-viewed stories on ESPN.com in the last year related to James. ESPN launched the Heat Index to great success, partially because Miami is now the NBA team everyone loves to hate.

Describing how he would change things if he had a mulligan, Doria added, “We probably wouldn’t pay him either.” Sure, James donated the profits to the Boys and Girls Club.

But his team got to sell the ads and then decide what to do with the money. ESPN policy forbids payment to sources in exchange for news. That was the policy a year ago as well. Yet that’s exactly what happened here, as Ohlmeyer pointed out.

ESPN isn’t above marking the first anniversary of that notorious hour of television without a hint of irony. “Taking my talents” was the refrain in a "SportsNation" Autotune mash up Wednesday afternoon. "SportsCenter" aired its own montage on Thursday. ESPN.com revisited the spectacle as well.

Both Doria and Williamson look back on "The Decision" as a unique beast without a lot of bearing on the day-to-day choices at the network.

“We could have done everything right and people would still be angry about LeBron,” Doria said.

Sure, but fans wouldn’t conflate their anger toward LeBron with their anger toward ESPN. No matter how normal ESPN tries to make "The Decision" appear, it will forever remain in the minds of fans a target of deserving scorn.