ESPN radio and television host Dan Le Batard found himself on the sidelines last week after the network suspended him for putting up billboards in Akron taunting LeBron James. Le Batard was the second of three prominent ESPN hosts suspended by Bristol in the last two weeks, sandwiched between Stephen A. Smith and Max Kellerman.
Of the three, Le Batard’s suspension was perhaps the most surprising. The billboard stunt came after weeks of the host doing one of his patented satirical troll jobs aimed at northeast Ohio, Cavs fans, and James. Le Batard and his show first inquired about a full-page ad in major northeastern Ohio newspapers. When that wasn’t going to work, they went to the billboards.
In another surprise, Le Batard has written a column at ESPN.com opening up about the suspension. It’s unclear the motive for the column as it’s highly unusual for any ESPN personality to say “Here’s what that whole suspension thing was all about.” Nevertheless, a link to the column was posted on the front page of ESPN.com.
DLB starts with the motive. Much like the Deadspin Hall of Fame vote caper, it started out all in good fun.
I found myself, a little bit by accident and a little bit not, at the center of a funny national sports mess last week. I chose to have some fun in the corporate-sponsored cathedral we’ve made of sports. The episode became a blasphemy, and I was made to pay a two-day penance for my sins. It was a suspension I earned and deserved, by the way, but we’ll get to that soon enough.
Le Batard goes on to say that he really doesn’t think James needs to thank Miami Heat fans (because of course he doesn’t). It was all performance art. For once, the column provides a glimpse at what DLB really thinks about the matter instead of his gleeful troll job. (Of course, this entire column could be a troll job on the troll job, but that’s a layer of debate I’m not quite ready to embrace this morning.) The host also goes to great detail to chronicle the absurdity of the Akron Beacon Journal refusing to run Le Batard’s full-page ad out of principle, but then covering the billboard story and running it anyways for free.
The most interesting part of the column is Le Batard opening up about support he gained from onlookers after ESPN suspended him. The host makes it clear that he feels he deserved his suspension; furthermore, he was bemused over the near-universal support for him and condemnation for ESPN being heavy-handed.
ESPN didn’t find this quite as funny as I did. I hadn’t checked with my supervisors. I had gone rogue with a local stunt in a national venue in a rah-rah way that isn’t really how ESPN does business. So I was told to suspend the plane flight and whatever shenanigans we had planned for LeBron’s Akron homecoming. I said I would not and could not because we were building this up for days on the radio to a crescendo and to simply stop talking about it and not do it with no mention would be dumb, inauthentic, confusing and not me. I was polite about it, but I was insubordinate. I refused to budge. We were flying the plane. So I was suspended, as I should have been. If I’d actually believed in any of this, I might have flown the plane anyway, even while on suspension, but this would be a pretty silly cause for which to lose your job.
What happened next was interesting and instructive, too.
We’re always taking sides in sports. A decision-maker with more investment and more information than us makes a decision. And we pick it apart and pounce as sport amid sports, even though we are usually less informed than the people at the center of the spectacle who have more riding on these decisions.
I say all this because everyone sided with me in the matter of LeBatard vs. ESPN. I mean, everyone. I’m used to being unpopular. I’m used to having opinions people don’t like. I’ve never had this many people behind me on an issue … even though I didn’t believe in my actual cause … and even though I understand exactly why ESPN had to suspend me because, you know, I have more information than the people applauding me, and I was insubordinate.
Everyone sided with Le Batard because it was clear ESPN was being hypocritical in how they dished out punishment and what they deem to be acceptable behavior. Everyone sided with Le Batard because he was clearly trying to poke fun at the situation and the over-seriousness in sports debate, yet ESPN has done everything but break out the pom poms for Skip Bayless and his brand of trolling. The only difference is Le Batard was creative enough to put it on a billboard instead of ESPN2.
Le Batard may believe he “earned” his suspension, but it opened up a window into a world where one struggles to provide an answer for what really does represent ESPN’s standards and brand. Le Batard continues:
But it was interesting to watch the outrage spread on my behalf … even though I wasn’t outraged or even wronged. It was such an easy position for me to take, pro-fun, the media giant crushing the little man and his little ol’ voice and freedom. The outpouring was overwhelming, labor shaking a fist at management, and some of it even came from people who don’t like me.
This fun and ridiculous stunt all turned out to be accidental performance art that created media buzz and ratings in a benign way while sticking to my irreverent beliefs about not genuflecting in the cathedral we’ve made of fun and games.
In that way, this whole episode wasn’t so much about Dan Le Batard, and his performance art, and billboards. The controversy revolved around why ESPN felt the need to publicly shame and discipline someone for a self-admitted “fun and ridiculous” stunt while allowing people who are actually serious about what they do to drag the network brand through the mud.
In that way, ESPN’s suspension of Le Batard proved his point about the corporate-sponsored cathedral we’ve made of sports.