Category: sports

How Not to Handle a Crisis: A DeflateGate Update

Tom Brady, who is implicated in an NFL investigation into whether his team intentionally deflated footballs used in the AFC Championship Game in January. Photo by Keith Allison. Used under Creative Commons license.

By Mike Kuczkowski

In Week 7 of what was a tough 2014 NFL season, Patriots Quarterback Tom Brady was ticked off.

It was halftime, October 16. Patriots v. Jets. At home. New England was up 17-12, in a surprisingly feisty matchup. At the time, the Patriots were 4-2, having endured two tough losses in the first four games of the season. Brady had two touchdown passes in the game already, but he was annoyed at the condition of the footballs he was throwing.

He turned to John Jastremski, Patriots equipment assistant, and told him the footballs “f***g suck.”

Whether that was a flippant comment or the start of a conspiratorial effort to ensure that Patriots footballs were pressurized to below regulations, we still don’t know. We do know that four weeks later, against the Indianapolis Colts, the Colts intercepted a football from Brady that felt “squishy” in their estimation. They tucked that little insight into their proverbial back pocket, waiting to call the Patriots out on it if it ever became useful. (I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: this is the NFL’s Pine Tar incident.)

Fast forward to the AFC Championship Game, January 18. Patriots v. Colts again. Second Quarter, Patriots ahead 14-0. Colts linebacker D’Qwell Jackson intercepts a deep pass up the middle intended for Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski. Jackson hands the ball over to Colts team officials, who test the ball and find it’s underinflated. They flag it to the NFL, alleging foul play.

And so, Deflategate is born.

This week, the scandal trudges on, with the release of a 243-page report from the law firm the NFL retained to investigate the Colts’ allegations. The DeflateGate crisis erupted the next day, dominated the airwaves in the two weeks before Super Bowl XLIX, and now, it’s back.

It turns out, not surprisingly, there are employees of football teams who spend a lot of time preparing footballs. Breaking in the leather, reducing or increasing the tackiness of the ball. Air pressure, at least for some, is actually a pretty big issue. Clubhouse attendants joke a lot about the fussy demands of quarterbacks. Signed game day jerseys and footballs are given out in gratitude to the men behind the scenes. It’s a big deal.

And, it’s not without drama. Among other disclosures, we can now read the text message exchanges between Jim McNally, Patriots locker room attendant, and Jastremski – the two men responsible for delivering game day footballs that Quarterback Brady would find acceptable – that are as ribald as any of the jokes about Brady’s “balls” published in the midst of the scandal.

In one exchange, October 17 – the day after the Jets game – McNally tells Jastremski that he plans to overinflate footballs, just to get back at Brady for complaining.

“Tom sucks…im going (to) make that next ball a f**in balloon.”

Whether these texts represent a “smoking gun” of conspiracy, or innocent banter between two colleagues is up for debate. (Check Twitter, the debate is happening.) But, it further cements DeflateGate as one of the more ineptly handled crises of recent years.

I opined on Deflategate back in January, and said there were a number of clear missteps by the Patriots and the NFL in their handling of the crisis. In summary, I said the Patriots (and to some degree the NFL):

  • Bungled their disclosure of facts
  • Fumbled the roll-out of information about the incident
  • Offered up extremely amateurish spokespersons
  • Failed to manage the calendar and resolve issues in a timely manner
  • Failed to provide context for the importance of the issue at hand

Let’s add “waiting until early May to release a definitive account of what actually happened” to the list. And, that goes onto the NFL’s ledger. Conveniently after the NFL Draft. They appear to have managed the calendar a bit, shall we say, too deftly.

That said, the report itself is revealing in its facts. Startling in its candor. Along the way, it raises a host of issues that spell trouble for the reigning Super Bowl Champions. Specifically:

  • Jastremski and Brady talked a lot about the condition of game day footballs, and Brady took a personal interest in virtually every aspect of how those footballs were prepared
  • Jastremski and McNally joked a lot about that process
  • McNally, who was responsible for taking the game balls that the referees had approved onto the field, left the officials’ locker room with the footballs without permission, which is a breach of standard operating procedure (Walt Anderson, the head of the officiating crew, said it was the first time in his 19 years as an NFL official that he could not locate the game balls at the start of a game.)
  • Game officials did not accompany McNally and the balls to the field, as is standard practice
  • McNally stopped along the way and took the balls into a bathroom and locked the door for 1 minute and 40 seconds

If any deflating was done, that’s when it happened. (Incidentally, McNally’s nickname, according to the report, was “The Deflator.”)

So the whole DeflateGate controversy probably was not much ado about nothing after all.

Perhaps most significantly, it makes clear that at least at some points in his career, Tom Brady has been very concerned about the issue of the amount of air pressure of his game day footballs.

And as early as 2006, according to reports, Brady was one of several quarterbacks who lobbied for a rules change that would allow visiting teams to have more autonomy in the preparation of game day footballs. In the report, as noted above, he definitely gives staff clear instructions on the condition and the pressure he wants in game day footballs.

The report also explains something I criticized back in January – and suggests a different explanation for the dynamic I observed than I expected.

In head coach Bill Belichick’s Jan. 22 press conference, he said he was “shocked” about news reports of deflated footballs and had no knowledge about the process of preparing game day footballs. He was monotone and came across curmudgeonly, as he often does. Belichick ended it by saying the media should ask Brady about the issue: “Tom’s personal preferences on his footballs are something he can talk about in much better detail and information than I could possibly provide.”

Belichick’s claims of ignorance ran against his reputation as an incredibly detail-oriented control freak. And, his “shocked” quote drew comparisons to Captain Renault’s declaration of innocence about the gambling at Rick’s Café Americain in Casablanca.

A few hours later, Brady projected innocence and even bewilderment at the issue. In response to the question “Is Tom Brady a cheater?” Brady replied, “I don’t believe so.” Asked if he knew whether anyone on the Patriots had done anything wrong, he said “I have no knowledge of any wrongdoing.” In addressing how he liked footballs prepared for game day, he said he liked them inflated to 12.5 psi, which is the lowest level permitted by the rules, but that his process in general focused on picking gameday footballs based on their grip, not their inflation level. “It’s not like I ever squeeze the football, I just grip the football.” To many observers, Brady saved the day.

So, yay for Brady and boo (again) for Belichick. Except, the NFL report concludes in fact Belichick did not know anything about the issue. He was being honest and, I think, fairly transparent. Now it looks like Brady is at least stretching the truth, according the facts outlined in the report.

What’s next? Sadly, this report – 14 weeks in the making – doesn’t bring us what we need: Closure.

The report is detailed on the facts, yet equivocal in its conclusions: “(I)t is more probable than not that New England Patriots personnel participated in violations of the Playing Rules and were involved in a deliberate effort to circumvent the rules.”

Now what?

That shouldn’t even be a question. There is no reason this report should have been released without at the same time issuing suspensions or fines. It should be a one-day story. Rip off the Bandaid. Deal with the consequences. Move on.

Instead, it’s as though the report is a trial balloon, intended to gauge the public’s reaction to the facts before the league makes its move.

This shows the biggest problem the NFL has, the lack of a disciplinary structure for issues of this nature. Commissioner Roger Goodell lacks trust, and candidly as the head of the organization he shouldn’t be the one doling out discipline. Someone else, someone credible, even-tempered and with a deep reverence for the integrity of the game needs to have the role of fining and suspending players and teams that violate the rules.

Goodell will eventually address DeflateGate. He may suspend Brady for a game or two, banned the clubhouse employees from the league or fine the team. For now, all we can do is speculate.

Which means more debate on an issue that should already be in the rear-view mirror. Meanwhile, the list of ways in which DeflateGate is a case study in how not to handle a crisis grows longer.

The Sports Guy Returns! Long Live the Sports Guy!

By Mike Kuczkowski

He’s baaaack!

Bill Simmons, the bad boy of podcasting, has returned to the studio and is churning out his commentary on Vegas’ National Football League lines again, along with podcasts on basketball and various other pop culture topics.

I feel like Don Imus has returned to WFAN after racist comments about the Rutgers women’s basketball team, or Billy Martin is back in the Yankee dugout.

Actually, I don’t feel that way at all. Simmons is nothing like those guys. (And I confess to loving both Imus and Martin, despite their mistakes.) Simmons is probably the most middlebrow commentator the interwebs have yet produced.

Yet Simmons managed to get himself suspended for three weeks, after saying on his B.S. Report podcast that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was “a liar.” That description, which many observers would agree holds at least the possibility of being true, apparently ran afoul ESPN’s editorial standards.

The suspension itself became a cause célèbre. Simmons’ loyal followers (he has nearly 3 million Twitter followers and his B.S. Report podcast is consistently among the most downloaded in the iTunes store) were outraged and launched a #FreeSimmons hashtag campaign. Domestic violence supporters spoke out in his defense. Commentators quickly pointed out the multi-billion dollar relationship between ESPN and the NFL, which presides over the premier league of America’s most popular sport, was probably the main reason for the suspension.

Neither ESPN nor the NFL looked good. (Here’s our crisis scorecard of both organizations.)

Simmons, on the other hand, presents a more complicated picture. Yes, he possesses a bit of a martyr halo here, for being suspended for speaking his mind. But he also was, what’s the word… stupid.

In life and in journalism, when you hear the words “I dare you” leaving your lips, you are literally asking for trouble. So, in a way, Simmons got what he was asking for.

What disappoints me is that Simmons was pontificating rather than offering the kind of nuanced, insightful analysis of which he’s capable. The analytical side of Simmons is what’s mostly on display on Grantland, with thoughtful, long-form news and commentary from his stable of writers. As I wrote in “The New Digital Journalists” these guys are bringing all the tools of the digital journalist — stats, links, YouTube clips, infographics and replay gifs — into their reporting. It’s exciting to witness.

The dark side of this is they are their own brands, and they know it. At his best, as with his interview with legendary screenwriter William Goldman, Simmons asks excellent questions and listens well. He’s witty, thoughtful and observant. At other times, he sounds like a frat boy, full of braggadocio.

Monday, Simmons returned to the BS Report, talking about the NFL’s Week 7 games and Week 8 betting lines. His only reference to the controversy was to say he was glad to be back and to thank fans for their kind emails and tweets of support. It is perhaps the most winning moment in this entire scandal. Striking a reasonable tone in his first podcast underscores the degree to which ESPN acted unreasonably.

There’s a lot of ballgame yet to be played. Grantland itself has come under scrutiny, and it’s still evolving as a platform. There are whispers that Simmons will look to walk away from ESPN at the end of his current contract, in which case he’s likely to have many suitors. Let’s hope that wherever he goes, he stays true to the thoughtful side of the brand and persona he’s created, with a lesser dose of pontification. It would be his ultimate victory.

Crisis Scorecard: ESPN and the NFL

By Mike Kuczkowski

That ESPN and the NFL each face criticism for their handling of employee discipline underscores the unpredictable nature of the modern crisis, and how important performance in the face of unexpected events has become the measure of crisis response.

The league has botched a series of incidents of domestic violence and child abuse involving its players. Most notably, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell had to backpedal aggressively in the wake of criticism of his suspension of star Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice. This was after the Website TMZ posted a video showing Rice punch his then-fiancee, now wife, in an elevator at an Atlantic City casino and knock her unconscious.

Rice, who was initially given a two-week suspension, was suspended “indefinitely” by Goodell, who later admitted, “I got it wrong.”

The Rice incident involves a rather lengthy set of facts here, though they are important in terms of understanding how things went so wildly awry. (SB Nation has a helpful timeline.)

To my mind, there are five critical factors at play:

  • Objectivity: Goodell played two roles in this case and neither one well. He both questioned Rice, during a meeting in June, and judged him, issuing a suspension in July. These are two distinct roles. The first, which focuses on fact-gathering, requires a dogged determination to sort out complex issues. For an organization like the NFL, it’s not enough to leave the fact-gathering to the criminal justice system. It must have its own objective standards of professional behavior, and apply the facts of a case to those standards. After all, professional football players are not average people. They are invariably multi-millionaires whose conduct reflects on their teams and the league itself, as the current case shows.
  • Fairness: Someone, ideally someone not on the fact-gathering team, needs to sit in judgment, weighing both the facts of the case and key issues that are outside of the core facts of the case. (e.g., first-time offense, violent nature of the offense, etc.) To many, Goodell’s two-week suspension immediately felt too light. An indefinite suspension now seems arbitrary, like he’s pandering to the critics. This is a hard decision to get right, which is why it rests with the league’s highest official.
  • Transparency: We live in an age of transparency. There can no longer be any expectation that facts or evidence in a case like this will not ultimately be made available to the general public. Technologically, it’s too easy to transport or transfer data and broadcast it to the world, as TMZ did in broadcasting the video from inside the elevator. There are also too many eyes on situations like this. Twenty years ago, the media list on a case like this would have included the Baltimore Sun, the Associated Press, Sports Illustrated and ESPN. Now there are dozens of blogs focused on sports and entertainment news, each of which are pressing for a scoop. The instantaneous sharing of news via social networks stokes the public outrage on issues like this, immediately resetting the news agenda to put new revelations at the top of the heap. Organizations may still take steps to try to ensure confidentiality, but they should prepare for sunlight.
  • Sensitivity to Context: This is probably the most nuanced aspect of this, but it bears mentioning — crisis managers need a sixth sense about how events connect to broader cultural and societal issues and can become exponentially larger crises. Domestic violence has always been a huge concern, but we are living in a cultural moment in which women, quite rightly, are fighting bias and prejudice in multiple contexts. Between Mulalla’s Nobel Peace Prize and “Lean In,” Goodell’s initial ruling feels obliviously and wildly anachoristic, in a “Mad Men” kind of way. It’s as though he looked at Rice, who generally had a good reputation as a community-minded player, and his wife, who was also urging leniency, and did what felt right to him, which was wrong under any circumstance or any time. In the current context, the issue was bound to spark considerably wider scrutiny.
  • Accountability: Everyone needs to be prepared to be accountable for their actions. In this case, it seems like multiple parties failed the test. Rice’s lawyers, who described this as a “very minor incident” should face questions about that description. Atlantic City police, who charged him with a misdemeanor and released him and his fiancée together within hours of the incident, face their own questions. It’s legitimate to question whether prosecutors, who agreed to allow Rice into a pre-trial program normally reserved for non-violent offenders, followed their own rules. Rice, whose actions clearly jeopardized the reputation of his team and the NFL, must be appropriately held accountable. And, Goodell now must answer to owners and fans for his initially too-weak punishment of Rice, and for — by his own admission — getting it wrong.

This same set of standards could be applied to ESPN:

  • Objectivity: There’s not much question as to what Simmons said, millions of people listened to the podcast. But, there are plenty of questions as to what in his statement, which was simply a rant, violated editorial standards. Here’s the key excerpt:

Goodell, if he didn’t know what was on that tape, he’s a liar. I’m just saying it. He is lying. I think that dude is lying. If you put him up on a lie detector test that guy would fail. For all these people to pretend they didn’t know is such f***ing bulls***. It really is. It’s such f***ing bulls***. And for him to go in that press conference and pretend otherwise, I was so insulted. I really was.

 I really hope somebody calls me or emails me and says I’m in trouble for anything I say about Roger Goodell. Because if one person says that to me, I’m going public. You leave me alone. The Commissioner’s a liar and I get to talk about that on my podcast. Please, call me and say I’m in trouble. I dare you.

An objective person would have a hard time interpreting Simmons’ comments about Goodell as anything other than a strongly held opinion, perhaps an irresponsible one, but definitely within First Amendment boundaries of free speech. Odds are, as many critics have speculated and ESPN’s own ombudsman admits, there is a piece of insubordination in Simmons’ commentary — the “I dare you” part — that prompted action, which, in my opinion, is not terribly objective.

  • Fairness: Is a three-week suspension of a commentator for making a provocative but “within the realm of possibility” statement fair? I know of no comparable suspension in history. The immediate comparison was to Rice himself, whose initial suspension for domestic abuse was shorter. But commentators are another animal altogether. In 2007, Imus was suspended for two weeks after remarks so racist I don’t feel comfortable reprinting them here. ESPN has suspended people before for things like having affairs with production assistants, sexual harassment or racist or insensitive on-air remarks. The Simmons incident doesn’t have any of those elements. Candidly, I struggle to find a benchmark for comparison, which is troubling.
  • Transparency: Score a point for ESPN. They explained themselves and ESPN’s ombudsman Robert Lipsyte wrote a lengthy column about it, bringing his own perspective to the issue and saying he thought it was the right thing to do. Lipsyte raises a question that I believe is a legitimate concern – who is responsible for reviewing podcasts and columns before they are posted, and are they really in a position to push back on a ‘franchise player’ like Simmons. An excellent question, but one that should be directed at ESPN more than Simmons. After all, ESPN determines what kind of organization supports Simmons.
  • Sensitivity to Context: Again, Simmons has been on the right side of this issue. He’s been one of the set of people willing to say that Goodell got it wrong and willing to put people on his podcast who represented women’s point of view of the situation. Silencing that kind of a voice, while expedient in the context of a multibillion dollar broadcasting relationships, is dangerous.
  • Accountability: Ultimately, ESPN is not really accountable to the public in the same way the NFL is, although it probably should be. Most of the tools of accountability that would normally be used with a broadcaster, such as an FCC action, don’t yet apply to podcasts and digital sites. And it’s a general rule that unduly harsh discipline is less likely to bring an organization down than unduly lenient discipline. People can come to Simmons’ defense on Twitter, but obviously that didn’t change ESPN’s mind.

So ESPN comes out slightly ahead in this analysis than the NFL. But only slightly.

Jeter’s Final Curtain

By Mike Kuczkowski

Derek Jeter has done a lot of amazing things on a baseball diamond. He’s amassed more than 3,450 hits, the sixth most of all time. He’s played more games and has more hits at shortstop than anyone, ever. And, he has won five World Series rings, most among active players.

With Jeter, though, it’s not so much about what he’s accomplished, but about how he’s accomplished it. Diving into the stands face first at full speed to catch a foul ball. Flipping a relay throw to nab the A’s Jeremy Giambi at the plate in the playoffs. And above all, a workmanlike approach to playing day-in, day-out for the most storied franchise in American sports. These intangibles, more than his box scores, have made him an icon. And, a new 90-second spot by Gatorade captures a lot of what I’d describe as Jeter’s ‘brand essence.’

The piece opens with a long shot of New York City, the skyscrapers, bridges and tabloids, and Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” playing in the background. (“And now, the end is near…”)

Close up of Jeter, being driven to a game. “You know what, I’ll walk from here,” he says and hoofs it to the stadium.

Girls squeal as he walks past. He high-fives kids on a playground. He is at ease waving at construction workers and autographing his photo at Stan’s Sports Bar across the street from Yankee Stadium. (“I’ve been wanting you to come in here since 1998, at least,” says Stan; “You never invited me,” quips Jeter. “Well you’re here now, thank God,” Stan replies.)

He helps an older woman with her cell phone, wades into the crowd in front of Yankee Stadium, is mobbed and signs autographs. Then, silently, he scans the retired numbers in Monument Field and dons his uniform in the clubhouse. Finally, after tapping a sign that reads “I want to thank the Good Lord for making me a Yankee” (A quote from Joe DiMaggio, another Yankee legend), #2 ascends the clubhouse stairs, onto the field, where he tips his cap to the cheering crowd.

Jeter is giving us a master class in brand expression. Here are some lessons:

  • Know Your Brand: Jeter is a winner, and in interviews he often talks about that as the only thing that matters. But, winning in and of itself is not a brand value for Jeter. His brand is about effort, consistency, clutch performance and a team orientation. And in that way, his brand is built of things that we can all aspire to, even if we lack elite talent. This piece shows his accessibility, his grace, his humor and his appreciation for what baseball means for fans.
  • Know Your Mythology: There’s a shot in the video of a young boy on the steps of Yankee Stadium screaming and jumping up and down, clutching what we presume is a Jeter-signed baseball. It’s a timeless image. In an age where our sports heroes’ behavior seems somewhere between flawed and deplorable, it’s great to reconnect with the mythology of a sports icon and a kid.  The black-and-white execution makes it timeless, subtly reinforcing that cue.
  • Take Ownership: Sometimes, a brand leader just needs to take the reins. Jeter was in the driver’s seat of this creatively. According to AdWeek, it was Jeter’s idea to create a video of him thanking Yankees fans. While Gatorade roped off the blocks around the stadium for this spot, the creative director says they “just kind of let Jeter go,” which comes through in the piece. Jeter also wrote the copy for a print ad that will run this weekend (“Your grit fueled my will… you helped make me who I am”), while this spot is airing on broadcast outlets. And, perhaps most importantly, he chose the song.
  • Leverage Symbols: Speaking of which, “My Way” is a brilliant choice. Any Yankees fan knows that when the Yankees win, Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” blares over the PA system. I remember taking my wife to a Yankee playoff game in 2000. When Sinatra sang, “I want to be a part of it,” it expressed exactly what it felt like to be in that ballpark with 50,000 other New Yorkers. By using another Sinatra song as the soundtrack for this piece, Jeter links directly back to that symbol, striking a perfect note. As does the DiMaggio reference.
  • Be Authentic: Jeter is a multi-millionaire, model-dating sports icon, but he also has an innate ability to connect with people. It’s the strongest aspect of this piece. Jeter does not seem aloof; he seems accessible. His interactions with fans don’t seem forced, they seem real.  

It’s worth noting that there is not a single highlight-reel moment of Jeter on the field in this piece. No home runs. No All-Star games. No double plays. Just a thank you to the fans.

Well done, Gatorade. And, of course, well done Jeter. Nailed it.

Return Of The King: How LeBron James Nailed ‘Decision 2.0’

Photo credit: Keith Allison, via Creative Commons

By Mike Kuczkowski

Since entering the NBA 11 years ago, LeBron James has been described as the heir to Michael Jordan – big shoes to fill, given that Jordan is widely recognized as the greatest player of all time. And James has fulfilled much of the promise. Like Jordan, James possesses tremendous physical gifts, is incredibly competitive and has dominated his era. Each has been described as a basketball genius.

When it comes to managing his personal brand, though, James has been a middling playmaker. While he showed leadership during the Donald Sterling scandal this year, he was also criticized for lacking heart when he exited Game 1 of the NBA Finals due to cramps (fairly or not). Despite his impressive record of achievements, James the basketball star is not beloved.

Much of this dynamic can be traced back to “The Decision,” the televised interview with journalist Jim Gray on July 8, 2010 in which James announced he was leaving his hometown team Cleveland Cavaliers and would “take his talents to South Beach” and the Miami Heat.

The outcry was immediate and vitriolic. Cleveland fans burned his jersey. Cavaliers’ owner Dan Gilbert wrote a public letter calling it a “cowardly betrayal” – in comic sans font, no less.

Watching that live broadcast on ESPN – along with 13 million people – was painful. Gray, generally a fine journalist, did a horrible job, asking a series of questions about James’ thought process while delaying the news about his actual choice. When Gray finally asked him the key question, James stared impassively ahead and talked about how joining The Heat would allow him to win. He appeared self-centered and heartless.

In short, The Decision was a disaster.

One way to understand the impact this had on James’ brand is by looking at James’ “N-score”, a measure of marketability created by Nielsen in partnership with E-Poll. The metric looks at a combination of awareness, likeability and influence to assess how successful an athlete would be as a brand pitchman (or woman).

The chart below shows the 2011 rankings of the top 10 most influential athletes in all sports.

2011 Most Influential Athletes

Athlete Influence Awareness Like Dislike N Score
Shaquille O’Neal 21 71 45 4 334
Peyton Manning 20 49 54 5 262
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. 22 40 45 3 217
Michael Phelps 21 49 47 4 214
Troy Polamalu 21 23 64 3 165
Jeff Gordon 20 39 35 7 144
Tom Brady 23 35 40 11 131
LeBron James 20 42 33 15 131
Jimmie Johnson 25 20 47 6 72
Tim Tebow 20 19 44 13 41

SOURCE: Forbes.com, last accessed July 21, 2014

To be certain, James was still an elite brand. But in 2010, pre-“Decision”, James’ N-score was 261. Of note, James’s had the highest “dislikes/dislikes a lot” score in the top 10 – suggesting he was a polarizing figure. His 33:15 ratio of likes to dislikes stands in sharp contrast to someone like Troy Polamalu, whose 64:3 ratio represents a squeaky-clean likeability.

Fast forward to July 2014. James again stunned the world by leaving his team – this returning to Cleveland. From a communications perspective, this announcement was nothing but net.

I can see seven factors about Decision 2.0 that bode well for James’ brand and reputation:

1/ The Opt-Out: James didn’t wait; he opted out of his Miami Heat contract on July 1. He was businesslike about it. He said nothing bitter about the team, despite its stunning 5-game loss to the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA Finals. No acrimony, no ultimatums – just business. Most observers said they thought this was a non-event, and James would return to Miami, tamping down the hype cycle.

2/ The Process: James empowered his agent to meet with teams, took their measure and didn’t tip his hand. No circus act. No wild road show. The process was professional.

3/ The Silence: The King’s camp didn’t leak, which is remarkable in this rumor-mill-driven media age. There were very few rumors – speculation about Cavs owner Dan Gilbert’s jet being seen in Miami, moving trucks, that sort of thing – but generally, James and his people were disciplined.

4/ The Reconciliation: On July 6, the Cavaliers removed Dan Gilbert’s comic sans letter from the team’s Web site. We now know this was because that same day, James and Gilbert met and exchanged apologies. The act paved the way for James’ return.

5/ The Announcement: James surprised everyone by announcing his intention to return to Cleveland via an open letter on Sports Illustrated’s web site. No press conference, no party. By using a print medium, he controlled the narrative out of the gate, again with admirable discipline. And, he went directly to the fans first before any leaks could trump his message, showing he understands they are his most important stakeholders.

6/ The Message: James’ decision creates a potential redemption narrative for him. By using a first-person narrative approach to announce the news, James humanized himself and his choice. This was brilliant. We will judge him by his love of Northeastern Ohio and his desire to bring a title back to his birthplace. (Note: while he again used the word “I” plenty, the spirit of his remarks was team-oriented.) His statement acknowledged past mistakes and forgave past slights. It was authentic, classy and clear.

7/ The Messenger: Lee Jenkins did not play circus showman to the James sideshow, as Gray did in 2010. While playing the “as told to” card was uncharacteristic, it worked. Jenkins also penned an in-depth cover story analyzing the move and explaining how the first-person breaking news happened. Props for transparency.

[Note to digiratis: The mainstream media still have plenty of clout and cred, especially to drive a news cycle; Note to old-school media types: The news broke via SI’s Twitter feed.]

King James’ homecoming will salve a lot of wounds from 2010. If he can deliver Cleveland its first pro sports championship in 50 years, all will be forgotten. Still, we don’t even know how long he’ll stay.

One thing we do know: James has learned how to make a decision with authenticity, clarity and conviction. If he and his advisors continue to manage his personal brand deftly, I expect his reputation will continue to improve in the months and years ahead.

A final note re: the aforementioned comparisons to Michael Jordan: However close to His Airness James may come on the basketball court, he has a huge gap to close in terms of his personal brand. In 2011, when James’ N-score was 133, Jordan’s was a whopping 553.

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