With all the fallout surrounding “The Decision”, it would be a very neat trick to further dent the once pristine public image of LeBron James.  However, earlier today, an ESPN.com piece penned by Arash Markazi seemed to do just that, the journalist’s night out in Las Vegas with the LeBrontourage exposing the megastar as a preening and precious halfwit  (“James is quiet, occasionally applying Chapstick to his lips and nodding when he hears something he likes”), to the extent even Alex Rodriguez would be embarrassed to share his company.  Sure, who amongst us hasn’t attended a party in which champagne was served from the rafters by waiters wearing James’ Miami Heat jersey? (“I wish they’d have one of the girls with no panties do that instead,” complained LeBron) Perhaps not very many of us because shortly after Markazi’s article was published earlier today, it was quickly removed. The Boston Globe’s Ben Collins and Mark Leccese consider the ramifications.

BEN: Why do you think ESPN spiked this post by a reputable journalist it employs?

MARK: I don’t know, of course, but if I had to guess, I’d say it was pulled by ESPN’s lawyers. The column is a libel suit waiting to happen. The journalist reports that James drinks a lot of champagne and that he makes at least one crudely sexist remark. I am not saying the column is libelous, but it certainly invites a libel suit, and lawsuits are expensive.

BEN: If everything in this story is true (which is still an “if” at this point, yes), how does that affect ESPN’s credibility as a news-gathering organization?

MARK: If everything in this story is factual, and ESPN still spiked it even though it is a first-hand account by one of its respected journalists, then ESPN’s reputation as a news organization becomes a joke. This small incident show ESPN to be what most of us suspect it to be: an entertainment network that also reports scores and highlights.

BEN: If it becomes clear that they squelched a writer because it agitates the image of a league to which they own the $7.6 billion television rights, doesn’t that throw them into the bought-access bin of Extra or Access Hollywood?

MARK: I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a “bought access” network. It does report on sports organization with which it has no contract. I’d call it an entertainment network that doesn’t want to do anything to anger the sports organizations — and the stars — that provide ESPN with its profitable entertainment.