If The Oprah Winfrey Show was television’s premier destination for celebrities, often in the aftermath of something qualifying as a public relations scandal, seeking to buff their public images by applying (while pretending to strip off) a few new layers of polish in collaboration with the willing assistance of the fellow celeb who hosts the show, then The Shop, LeBron James’s HBO talk show that provides pablum and sells it as brave and authentic dialogue, is Oprah for today’s stars of sports and entertainment.
The Oprahfication of LeBron’s show became clear the moment HBO revealed the cast of The Shop’s latest episode, which aired last Friday. The episode featured the show’s hosts, LeBron and his childhood friend and longterm business partner, Maverick Carter, alongside Jamie Foxx, 2 Chainz, Jerrod Carmichael, Meek Mill, and, most importantly, Anthony Davis and Antonio Brown. It was the presence of Davis and Brown specifically that revealed the Oprah-esque machinations of The Shop’s producers.
Davis and Brown were the most newsworthy names on the episode due to their statuses as malcontents at their respective current places of employment. Most know these guys’ stories by now: NBA superstar Davis requested to be traded from the New Orleans Pelicans just over a month ago, and reportedly is most interested in going to play for LeBron’s own L.A. Lakers; NFL receiver Brown is desperate to get out of Pittsburgh by any means necessary.
Both of these trade demands are fully rational (Davis wants to go somewhere he can win; Brown no longer desires to share a locker room with that asshole Ben Roethlisberger) and understandable, and are the kinds of commendable exercises of self-determination that a saner sports culture would embrace and facilitate. Of course, none of that has precluded the usual suspects—fans of both the understandably hurt and the overly entitled varieties; sports execs who believe paying a player to play a game confers owners eternal rights to a player’s soul; members of the sports media whose philosophy on the freedom of movement of the NBA’s and NFL’s majority-black players is best explicated in Taney’s majority opinion in Dred Scott—from frothing at the mouth about two grown men who wish to have a say in where they work. But that’s all to be expected.
Here is where The Shop comes in. In the plush chairs of The Shop, the barbershop where no one argues and no one gets a haircut and everyone comes away making rather than losing money, Davis and Brown can present their cases for the righteousness of their trade demands before the eyes of a sympathetic public, with a helping hand from the man who’s probably done more work for the destigmatization of the so-called mercenary athlete than anyone else. Drake used The Shop for a similar PR debrief when he appeared in the second episode, giving his first public statements in the aftermath of his rap beef with Pusha T. There, Drake attempted to explain away his losing of the battle by rewriting the rules of rap and characterizing himself as too honorable a man to respond to Pusha in kind—though he wanted everyone to know that he totally could’ve bodied Pusha were he not quite so noble to withhold his reply track. Drake, Davis, and Brown all saw in LeBron’s show the opportunity to face the public for the first meaningful time and address their recent controversies, safe in the knowledge that their brand-conscious friend LeBron would help guide their own brands on the path to public redemption.
So what did Davis and Brown actually have to say for themselves? Nothing much, though it didn’t really matter. When asked about his situation with the Steelers, Brown gave the backstory of how he wound up missing the last game of the regular season, due not to injury but to a disagreement with head coach Mike Tomlin. He also reiterated his previously expressed points about that asshole Roethlisberger’s “ownership mentality,” and how Roethlisberger is granted leeway to criticize teammates that no other Steeler is allowed. From there, Brown decried the narrative that he is somehow a bad guy for standing up for himself and trying to take control of his career.
The defense of Davis’s actions were a little more interesting, mostly because of who was doing the defending. Davis did talk a little about this stuff himself. Early on in the episode, Carter asked Davis what it felt like the first time Pelicans fans booed him after news broke of his desire to be traded. Davis said that it’s been tough, not because of the booing itself, but because by that point (the episode appears to have been shot during the All-Star break, after the trade deadline had passed), he no longer knew where his future lay. He also spoke about the timing of his trade demand and how it served as evidence of his maturation as a person, saying of himself, “as a player, as the CEO of my own business, I got the power. I’m doing what I want to do, and not what somebody tells me to do.”
If you watch the full episode, though, you can’t help but notice how often LeBron steps in to defend Davis or praise him or his family for something. Like in the first clip above, when Brown spoke about the power of the narrative and LeBron used it as an opportunity to observed about how nobody had a word of criticism for Davis until Davis stopped doing what others—the Pelicans, the fans, and the media—wanted him to do and started doing what he wanted to do. Or like the time a little later in the show when LeBron mentioned how much he respects Davis’s parents, whom he called “real Gs” and referred to as “so gangsta,” for the way they actively shun public attention, in contrast to many other pro athletes’ parents. Or like at the start of the second clip above. Leading into the clip, LeBron was segueing from a discussion of what Carter posited as “one of the greatest—I mean it’s right up there with Nike, Apple” brand transformations as 2 Chainz ditched his original moniker, Tity Boi, an appellation the rapper explained as a longstanding family nickname that was essentially a delightfully colorful way of saying he was a mamma’s boy, for the generic, sanded-down, catchier name he currently goes by.
LeBron saw a connection between that transformation from something more raw and genuine and unique but ultimately of limited commercial value into something consciously more bland and digestible but with much greater prospects for economic success, and noted the similarities with Davis—whom LeBron refers to in the third person, one of several times he speaks glowingly about Davis as if he wasn’t there, in a way LeBron does to no one else in the episode.
It all adds up to an odd spectacle, with so many layers of dissembling and ulterior motives that it’s difficult to parse what exactly is being communicated, to whom, and why. Here is LeBron providing a platform for a couple of his peers so that they can act at unburdening themselves to an audience already primed to be on their side (remember, this is LeBron’s show on HBO, not Skip Bayless’s on Fox Sports) by telling stories they’ve already told before, only spiced up with a liberal peppering of cuss words to create the scent of candidness without requiring any of the substance. Davis and Brown get to stump for themselves, under the aegis of LeBron and his credibility in matters of sports and, increasingly, socio-political matters. LeBron gets to tighten his grip on the growing industry of direct, subject-approved communications between athlete and audience.
And in the case of Davis specifically, LeBron gets all this while also having the chance to connect to and flatter Davis, frame the form of Davis’s defense in this crucial time in his career, and strengthen the ties between the two men who everyone in the world knows want to play together. It’s impossible not to see LeBron blowing smoke up Davis’s ass for half an hour and not come away with the sense that it’s part of LeBron’s plan to coax Davis to the Lakers. (Is it a coincidence that Draymond Green—who will be a free agent in 2020 and is reportedly close to signing with LeBron’s agency, Klutch Sports—appeared in the first episode of The Shop? Or that Klutch Sports client and Lakers tampering kerfuffle-starter Ben Simmons appeared in episode two?)
By the end of the episode, nobody learned anything they didn’t already know or couldn’t have surmised about either Davis’s or Brown’s lives, personalities, or professional statuses. That’s because The Shop, for its celeb cast members and the heliocentric superstar it all orbits around, isn’t meant to provide real insight into the real experiences of the brandbots who appear on screen. It’s for the brandbots themselves to acquire the veneer of authenticity the show bestows to help the brands more successfully insinuate themselves into your pockets. LeBron’s barber chairs have become Oprah’s couch, where rich performers sit and laugh and swear and perform to increase their market share. (And hell, even Oprah grilled people from time to time, even if said grillings came only when Oprah’s own brand interests stood to gain more by her being combative rather than supportive. One wonders if or when LeBron will ever invite a single guest whose worldview doesn’t sync perfectly with his and the audience’s he’s attempting to court.) In that way, like the rebranding of Tity Boi into 2 Chainz, it is indeed up there with the work of Nike and Apple—the dressing-up of a product as something other, better, realer than a mere product by use of a few carefully chosen and attractive but functionally empty gestures, and doing so with great success.