LeBron story raises questions for ESPN

Cue Al Pacino as Lowell Bergman in "The Insider."

“Does he . . . tell the truth? Yes. Is it newsworthy? Yes. Are we going to air it? Of course not. Why? Because he’s not telling the truth? No. Because he is telling the truth and the more truth he tells, the worse it gets.”

Only in this case it’s not CBS spiking an interview with a big tobacco whistleblower for fear of a lawsuit by Brown and Williamson. It’s ESPN.com spiking a mostly benign, mildly unflattering portrayal of LeBron James written by one of its own employees for fear of . . . what exactly?

An angry phone call from Maverick Carter? A cease and desist email from Frederick Nance? LeBron taking his next televised PR disaster to TNT?

It’s debatable whether or not Arash Markazi’s near non-story about an evening in Vegas with the LeBron-tourage is remotely newsworthy, though in the Summer of ‘Bron his every fiber twitch has been chronicled. What’s not debatable is that Markazi’s story would have made barely a ripple in the sports consciousness had it just run for half a day on a sports website and then disappeared into the cyber dustbin of history.

LeBron James would rather his servers be scantily-clad women than costumed men? No way! LeBron James mimes shooting a basketball when walking through a casino? Busted! LeBron James is a better dancer than Lamar Odom? Gotcha!

If you track down the story -- there’s a screen grab on SPORTSbyBrooks -- expecting some Pacman Jones rainmaking or Ben “All you bitches, take my shots” Roethlisberger-type misconduct, you will be sorely disappointed.

In fact, it’s the banality of the story that seemingly guarantees its veracity. This isn’t Stephen Glass fictionalizing for The New Republic. A fabulist does not go into detail about a guy pretending to shoot jump shots as he walks past slot machines. Yawn.

There is nothing revelatory in the piece. Nothing overly salacious, particularly by pro athlete standards.

As ever, the cover-up here seems way worse than the non-crime.

If the story is true, and the accuracy is not being disputed, why wouldn’t ESPN.com just run it?

The reason ESPN.com editor-in-chief Rob King gave for killing the story, which it briefly published on its server, was that Markazi “did not properly identify himself as a reporter or clearly state his intentions to write a story.”

Seriously?

So we’re expected to believe some random dude was allowed to hang out all night with LeBron, close enough to hear what he was saying, and move from venue to venue with the crew without anyone knowing who he was or what he was doing?

As you might imagine, Arash Markazi doesn’t seamlessly blend in with an NBA posse, any more than, say, Jim Gray might. No, Markazi couldn’t have been more obviously a reporter had he been wearing an old-timey fedora with a card reading "PRESS" propped onto the brim.

Who did LRMR -- LeBron, Randy Mims, Maverick Carter and Richard Paul – think he was?

I doubt Markazi failed to identify himself. How else could he have gained such high-level entrée? And once he identifies himself the “clearly state his intentions to write a story” part should be understood.

“Hi, I’m Arash Markazi from ESPNLosAngeles.com, but I’m just here to party with all y’all so just ignore my tape recorder.”

Please.

Of course he was going to write a story.

LRMR had to know exactly who Markazi was and ESPN.com had to know exactly what he was doing, but someone wasn’t pleased with the finished product. He just wrote the wrong story.

Had the editors at Rolling Stone been this pusillanimous Gen. Stanley McChrystal would still have a job.

One has to ask, if Markazi had written a flattering portrayal of Saint LeBron without “properly identifying himself” would the story have been killed? Of course not.

That was the whole point, right? Somebody -- Maverick Carter perhaps -- pulled the velvet rope back for Markazi. Why? Because he seemed like a good dude? Or because he was a small part of the ever-expanding relationship between Team LeBron and the Worldwide Leader?

For the record, I’m not one of these knee-jerk ESPN haters that people the sports media landscape. You’ll never hear me refer to the network of "The Two Escobars" and hundreds of hours of phenomenal World Cup coverage as the “evil four-letter.”

But in light of The Decision I think it’s fair to question the way ESPN and its various media platforms cover LeBron James.

The first question might be, what does ESPN.com intend to do with Markazi who, if we’re to believe his employers, carried out this assignment unprofessionally? (Or are we to believe this story wasn’t even assigned?)

If Markazi was not welcomed by Team LeBron as part of a prearranged understanding with ESPN.com and had instead gone (brilliantly) rogue, embedding himself with the posse in violation of ESPN.com ethical standards, then he should be suspended.

If elements of the story were fabricated, he should be fired.

If Mr. Markazi is neither suspended nor terminated, we can assume he conducted himself professionally and wrote the truth. So ESPN.com either needs to punish Markazi or improve on its half-assed explanation for spiking the story, lest it risk looking more and more like LeBron’s public relations outfit.

If ESPN.com doubted the accuracy of the story or felt that LeBron had been unfairly sandbagged, then there may have been grounds for spiking the story.

But if a reporter who had been knowingly given access to the LeBron party scene in Vegas chronicled exactly what he saw and ESPN.com killed it because they didn’t like the way it made their sports business partner look, well, cue Al Pacino from "The Insider" again.

“What got broken here doesn’t go back together.”

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