Author’s Note: This essay was 2015 before Colin Kaepernick and before the election of Donald Trump.
1. The Decision
Ben Carrington poses the question “can the black athlete speak,” and writes “Black athletes have re-made sports, but not under conditions and rules of their own choosing” (2010, 177). Black American athletes in America have certainly reflected the black adaptive, creative resistance tradition of taking the cultural practices, language, rules and restrictions of the dominant society to produce their own cultural practices, their own language, and to find a way within the framework of imposed rules to exercise their own freedom of expression. Does the possibility exist for black athletes to create the conditions and the rules that will determine the economic direction of sports in the twenty-first century and return to the days of the black athlete as activist? Since 2010 LeBron James has providing evidence that yes the black athlete can speak in the twenty-first century. The black athlete can never speak in the defiant manner of a Jack Johnson or a Muhammad Ali; because the socio-political conditions which shaped those athletes such as Jim Crow racism no longer exist. The modern black athlete has their own particular brand of anti-black racism to deal and they have to be understood in the context of before Michael Jordan and after Michael Jordan.
After Michael Jordan there have been many who have wished to sit on the basketball throne that Jordan vacated; for a long time Los Angeles Lakers basketball star Kobe Bryant seem to be the heir apparent, but there is no doubt now that LeBron James is now Jordan’s true successor. The unpreceded anticipation to James’ 2010 free agency, the public courtship leading up to his decision—from team owners, mayors of major cities, a host of celebrities, to fan bases in Cleveland, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles was clear evidence of this. While other NBA elite players such as Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant had qualified for free agency, they had never truly exercised it they chose to stay with the teams that originally drafted them. James was the most coveted free agent in 2010, with every team in the NBA wishing to sign him and James granting only six NBA teams’ face- to-face meetings to try to impress him. Rarely had a marquee elite player seriously exercised his free agency rights in this manner. The way in which LeBron James exercised his free agency rights in 2010 and the harsh media and fan reaction to his decision provide furthers evidence yet that America is not in fact a “post-racial” nation as has been suggested since 2008 with the viable presidential candidacy and eventual election of Barack Obama to the United States presidency. The reaction to James’ approach to his free agency reflects the phenomenon of America’s long possessive investment in black bodies.
To understand sports, whether looking into the predominantly white stands to media culture and to the backlash against those who threaten the existence of both a commodifiable and pleasurable black athletic body, it is crucial to think about the dialectics between race and commodification, to think about sports, in all its forms, as a playground where black bodies become the feature and the most lucrative attraction thus elicits the greatest level of animosity when it (he) does not deliver profit, pleasure, and affirmation of dominant narratives and myths, all with a smile. (Leonard and King, 2011, 10).
The need to have black bodies always engaged in providing “profit, pleasure, and affirmation of dominant [racial] narratives” is a manifestation of the possessive investment in black bodies. LeBron James 2010 free agency decision disrupted the possessive investment in his black body because of James’ failure to deliver “profit and pleasure” to a large segment of white fans and because it challenged the narrative of white team owner domination over black players in the NBA. James conducted this disruption in a manner that can only be described as a spectacle. Bourdieu has explained that a transition has taken place “whereby sport as an elite practice reserved for amateurs became sports as a spectacle produced by professionals for consumption by the masses” (Washington and Karen, 2001). In the U.S. in order to make white audiences interesting in being consumers of a sport like basketball, once it became dominated by black bodies that white fans sense of a possessive investment in black bodies had to be cultivated. The NBA recently signed a television contract with ESPN, TNT and ABC which is estimated to be worth $24 billion. Thirty years ago before David Stern became commissioner of the NBA this would have been unimaginable. As John Matthew Smith explains with quotes from Stern:Soon after starting his new position, Stern realized that in order to change the perception of the league, the NBA and its partners had to find a way to manage racial tensions. He believed “that if everything else went right, race would not be an abiding issue to NBA fans, at least as long as it was handled correctly.” That is Stern believed it was possible that skillful marketing could create a “colorblind” relationship between the players and fans, and his comment reflected the kind of codified language that helped “sell” a predominantly black sport to a predominantly white audience (14)
Stern did not just create a “colorblind” relationship between NBA fans and NBA players but that his marketing strategies along with his player disciplinary strategies helped to cultivate NBA fans possessive investment in the black bodies of NBA players. Just as fans feel a sense of ownership in their team, they feel a sense of ownership in the players that play for the team. This is encouraged even more by the NBA being the most star-driven of the four major U.S. sports leagues. This possessive investment in the black bodies of NBA players requires that players present an image of always doing it for the fans and loving the fans. Hence cliché phrases like “the best fans in the world,” I am doing this for Chicago/Dallas/Houston,” are constantly uttered by players. The fans want to believe that the players are as invested in them as they are invested in the players. James 2010 free agency exposed the falsity of the notion of a “colorblind” relationship between NBA fans and players. It made visible white NBA fans possessive investment in black bodies when James chose not to do it for the fans, but to do it for himself.
James decision to go pursue a championship in Miami was not a rejection of any particular fan base, but a decision to pursue his own self-interest. However, the possessive investment in the bodies of black athletes requires that black athletes always put forward the notion that they are doing for the fans, thus James free agency was a disruption of white fans possessive investment in his black body. It is very important for us to recognize that the popularity of a sport like the NBA which is dominated by black bodies, rather than being a sign of racial progress, may in fact be the continuation of racism in a new fashion. This very hypervisible black domination of sports like basketball and the its consumption by white audiences when examined closely does not reveal progress but reliance on old stereotypes and the requirement that blacks continue to present a façade of humility and gratitude, less they be perceived as arrogant and “uppity.” It is also important that false notions of racial progress are challenged so that it can be identified where legitimate anti-racism work in our society needs to take place. In addition, notions of a color-blind or post-racial society can be used to say that no further affirmative and corrective work on race needs to take place in our society, when in fact there is much further work to be done.
Returning to the story of LeBron James’ free agency and how unique it and how James differed from his NBA predecessors and caused a disruption of the white possessive investment in black bodies, let’s take the input of veteran NBA team executive Donnie Walsh. He told ESPN journalist Chris Brossard: It’s something new, but we’re in a new age”…”I don’t remember Michael Jordan ever becoming a free agent. I don’t remember Larry Bird becoming a free agent. I don’t remember Magic Johnson becoming a free agent. It would’ve been the same back then if they had, but that never happened. (“Sources: James leaning toward Heat” 2010).
Walsh, an NBA executive with 30 years’ experience compares James to Hall of Fame championship athletes like Jordan, Bird and Johnson. Although in 2010, James had not won a championship, there was unconditional consensus that James was an elite player like Jordan and Johnson who simply needed the right supporting cast to win an NBA championship. James, like Michael Jordan needed a Scottie Pippen. In the NBA a star player like many classic comic book heroes, always needs the right sidekick; there have been many classic dynamic duos in the NBA, Jordan and Pippen among them. In the 2007-2008 NBA season, player trades brought Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to the Boston Celtics to join Paul Pierce, the sports media dubbed the trio “the big three.” The trio managed to capture the 2008 NBA championship in their first NBA season together. Perhaps the success of this new NBA model suggested to LeBron James that his own “Pippen” alone would not be enough to win an NBA championship. Two years after the Boston Big Three, James made his now infamous decision which led to the creation of a big three in Miami, consisting of him, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh. One of-a-kind elite NBA talents like Jordan, Johnson and a Kobe Bryant are what is needed to win an NBA championship. However, one cannot simply advertise on monster.com or Craig’s List to find an elite NBA talent. Elite NBA talents are like great works of art. They are highly coveted and exist only in limited supply. When it became clear in July 2010 that the most elite talent in basketball LeBron James was available to the right bidder, twenty nine NBA teams were willing to do what was necessary to snatch James from Cleveland.
The Cavaliers, the Cleveland fan base, and Cleveland politicians were willing to do anything they could imagine to retain this star player that had become the economic engine for their city; while Paris has the Eiffel Tower, New York has the Empire State building and London has the Tower of London; Cleveland had LeBron James as their major attraction and source of city pride. LeBron James was looking for the “right bidder” and not the highest bidder because under the CBA in existence in 2010, the Cavaliers were the team who could pay James the highest salary, so if money alone was what James was interested in he would not have needed to look for other professional suitors. In the end only six of the 30 NBA teams were given an opportunity to persuade King James that the championship coronation, which had eluded James for seven years, could happen in their city.
The NBA has a monopoly on professional basketball in the U.S., which makes the NBA the only available option for an American who wishes to play basketball in the U.S. In 2003, at the age of eighteen, LeBron James was the number one draft pick in the NBA, selected by the Cleveland Cavaliers. The league created its own system for awarding draft picks among its 30 teams. The teams are allowed to trade draft picks among themselves and even to trade the draft rights to players, the very night they draft them. However, not only do players who declare themselves eligible for the draft not have a say in which teams select them but they have very little say in how much they will be compensated for their services as rookie players. The salaries of NBA rookie players are predetermined by where they are selected in the draft. Players who are selected in the first round are entitled to larger monetary contracts than players who are selected in the second round. As part of the league’s Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) signed with the union of the NBA players, the NBA Players Association, the maximum number of years and salary that a rookie player’s contract can be constructed for are set by the CBA. After their first rookie contract is concluded, if they did not sign an extension before the expiration of their rookie contract, a player becomes a restricted free agent. As a restricted free agent, a player can receive offers from other teams, but their original team has the right to match any written offer from another team, and the player has to stay with his original team if they match the written terms of another team’s contract offer.
LeBron James was drafted at the age of eighteen straight out of high school, the terms of the CBA have now been changed to where United States born players have to wait until one year after their high school graduation to be eligible for the NBA draft. This has led to the phenomenon of “one and done” in which players attend college for one year then declare for the draft. What all this means is that whether a player is drafted at the age of eighteen, nineteen, twenty, that in their prime athletic years they have limited control of where they play, and limited negotiating room in receiving financial compensation for their athletic labor as there is a rookie salary scale, with predetermined salary rates and contract length. In addition, even after they become restricted or unrestricted free agents the NBA has a salary cap that does not allow players to earn their true market value. It certainly can be argued that the 30 principal owners of the 30 existing NBA teams who hold a monopoly on professional basketball in the U.S. engage in collusion to create a system that allows them to obtain players in their prime and to contractually hold on to them for a least five years and pay them a salary that the NBA has decided on, rather than an open and competitive labor market.
Labor economist Lawrence M. Khan notes that “[s]ports owners are a small and interconnected group, which suggest that they have some ability to band together and act as monopsonists in paying players” (2000, 76). Team owners are an elite power group who can engage in collusion and imposing their will in many ways beyond just controlling player’s salaries. The NBA is the only major professional basketball league in the United States. Other than going off to Europe, Russia or China for probably less lucrative and rewarding careers American basketball players do not have much alternative professional options. There are only 30 NBA teams and only about 450 basketball playing jobs available in the NBA; 30 teams, with a maximum of 15 players per team. Once a player is under contract for a team he is obligated to play for that team until his contract expires or he becomes an unrestricted free agent. A player can escape his contract by formally retiring, but then he loses the remaining salary on his contract and would having difficulty playing somewhere as the NBA has a relationship with FIBA the global governing body of basketball. During the 2011 NBA Lockout, Larry Coon explained the challenges for a player under contract to play overseas during the lockout, which would apply even if there were no lockout:
In order to play professionally overseas, FIBA (the organizing body for international basketball) requires a Letter of Clearance from the player’s national organizing body. In the case of players from the United States, that’s USA Basketball. The Letter of Clearance certifies that the player is free to sign a contract — i.e., he has no other contractual obligations that would get in the way. An NBA contract is such a contractual obligation. Lockout or not, it’s still an existing contract. So on the surface, an NBA player who’s under contract would not be allowed to sign in any FIBA league. NBA free agents, on the other hand, can sign wherever they’d like. (Coon, ESPN, 2011).
The clear collusion among NBA owners has been accepted by the majority of U.S. sports journalists and U.S. sports fans. However, the possibility of collusion among NBA players is regarded differently. According to Brian Windhorst of the Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper, there is evidence to suggest that James, Wade and Bosh colluded. He writes “[t]he seeds were planted in the summer of 2006 after Bosh, James and Wade finished their third seasons” (Windhorst, 2010). He goes on to explain further how for a “week, they were sequestered without family or friends in Sapporo, Japan, in an attempt to build chemistry” for Team USA’s basketball preparations for the then upcoming World Championships. According to Windhorst:
Already close because they came from the same draft class, the Team USA experience strengthened the relationship. Even before the team gathered in Las Vegas to prepare for the World Championships that summer, the three had talked about playing for that team…That same July, the co-op took on another role when all three decided to extend their contracts with their teams. They couldn’t all become unrestricted free agents until 2007 under the rules, so the smart play was for them to extend with the respective teams. (Windhorst, 2010).
In 2003 it was perfectly acceptable for a pre-designed owner system to allow NBA owners to select the team destinations of Dwayne Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh and sign them to rookie contracts whose terms had already been predetermined prior to them even declaring for the draft. However, it was unacceptable that these three players may have agreed among themselves that they would all come together in 2010 as unrestricted free agents, who could play for the team that they wanted. Although the NBA has never cited or formally declared that the three players or the Miami Heat organization engaged in collusion there is widespread belief that the three players did in fact conspire among themselves to decide their professional destination. There has been strong resentment expressed about the notion that Wade, Bosh and James may have colluded to become teammates on the Miami Heat. The greatest recipient of the expressed resentment was LeBron James. However, then NBA commissioner David Stern stated “[o]ur players, having negotiated for the right to be free agents at some point in their career, are totally within their rights to seek employment with any other team” (Adande, 2010) As for the accusations of the players engaging in collusion Stern downplayed the matter “[t]hey don’t collude, they just sort of talk of how nice it is to be able to play together and they’re allowed to do that” (ibid). Perhaps because at the time Stern knew the NBA would be locking out the players, he did not want talk of collusion among players, since it might lead to talk about collusion among owners. Stern, did however recognize the player’s right to free agency, which many fans did not in the resentment they felt towards Bosh, Wade and James.
The resentment was particularly directed towards James, because he chose to announce his departure via a live ESPN special. Some saw this as a narcissistic spectacle. Since the twentieth century and the arrival of ESPN in 1979 and now technological advances in digital media modern sports has become a “spectacle.” Rules of the games have been changed in basketball, football and other sports to accommodate television viewing. Bourdieu has stated that modern “sports [is] a spectacle produced…for consumption’ (Washington and Karen, 2001). The broadcast of the NFL and NBA draft each year are major spectacles. There seems to be a different level of acceptance as to what team owners and television are allowed to do and what players are allowed to do. It is acceptable for owners and ESPN executives and producers to stage spectacles like the NFL and NBA draft; however it is unacceptable for James to produce a spectacle like “The Decision,” even though ESPN collaborated with him on it and money raised from the broadcast was donated to charity. When LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh were drafted in 2003 it was broadcasted on live television. Even the determination of what order the NBA teams will select players is made into a live television special.
So when LeBron James decided in 2010 that he would announce his free agency choice in a live ESPN broadcast, he perhaps saw it as no more different than the manner in which the world learned that he was the number one draft pick of the Cleveland Cavaliers; on live television. James was such a high school phenomenon that his high school games were broadcast on Cleveland television. Even before LeBron James was drafted it was a national news story about which sports apparel company James would sign him to a contract to release his signature sneakers. James had grown accustomed from a very young age to world wanting to “witness” the events of his life. His ESPN special “The Decision” was perhaps another opportunity for him to allow them to bear witness. Unfortunately, James had failed to take into consideration issues of race in America and how they would shape the lens through which the audience, particularly the white audience viewed his tele-spectacle of boldness, brashness and power. They would not perceive themselves as witnessing the triumph of a 25 year old black man who had been born to a poor teenage single mother, who as a child had lived in the projects and in one particular year moved 12 times; in their eyes they were witnessing arrogance, ego and “uppityness.”
Jackie Robinson was lauded for his humility in enduring the racist abuses from fans when he became the first black man to formally join Major League baseball. Athletes like Joe Louis who has been described as “ the first African-American to achieve hero worship that was previously reserved for whites only” (Schwartz, ) and the late tennis player Arthur Ash were also black men who were admired for their perceived humility and non-militant approach to the issue of black racism in America. Black athletes like Jack Johnson, Muhammad Ali and former Cleveland Browns football player Jim Brown, who behaved in a manner that was seen as defiant and certainly not humble were viewed differently from Robinson, Louis and Ash. The likes of Johnson, Ali and Brown were seen as arrogant and egotistical and perhaps one can say “uppity.” “The Decision” broadcast placed James alongside Johnson, Ali and Brown in receiving public condemnation for being black man unwilling to make providing “profit and pleasure” for white audiences their main priority, thus they were seen as lacking humility.
Perhaps on the heels of Barack Obama’s election as the first black president of the United States, LeBron James believed that we were in a post-racial era, in which race was no longer a factor in public perception and attitudes. The term “post-racial” according to an NPR broadcast “is what Senator Barack Obama [signaled] in his victory speech in South Carolina” on January 26, 2008. (Schorr, 2008). According to NPR, post-racial then became “the latest buzz word in the political lexicon” (ibid). As they explain it:
Post-racial began to come into vogue after Obama won the Iowa caucuses and faired well in the New Hampshire primary…The Economist called it a post-racial triumph and wrote that Obama seemed to embody the hope that America could transcends its divisions. The New Yorker wrote of a post-racial generation and indeed, the battle-scarred veterans of the civil rights conflict of 40 years ago seemed less enchanted with Obama than those who were not yet alive then… (Schorr, 2008).
The backlash to his decision, particularly the racialiazed commentary, especially on social media perhaps, led James to realize as journalist Jonathan Capehart wrote of post-racialism in America “[f]rom its first utterance in 2008 to herald the rise of Barack Obama, the concept was misguided and delusional”. (Capehart, 2014). Later on in a television interview with Soledad O’Brien, James would admit that yes he felt “race” had something to do with the public backlash he was subjected to after “The Decision”, telling O’Brien “I think so at times. It’s always, you know, a race factor.” (Zirin 2010) The notion of color-blind racism is very much applicable to the NBA. Race is the elephant on the NBA court that everyone pretends not to see and “race” is the word that dare not be uttered. Race very much played a role in the public reaction to the free agency decision of LeBron James in 2010, but every reason was offered to explain the hostile public reaction except the possibilities of race and racism as crucial contributing factors. The backlash against James endured until in 2014 when he decided to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers organization. According to journalist Jean McGianni Celestin “ [o]n February 11,  a Detroit Pistons fan verbally assaulted James during the game by shouting obscene comments about his mother in front of his two young sons, who were seated courtside” (2011). McGianni Celestin writes that after James’ new Miami Heat team lost the NBA championships to the Dallas Mavericks “CNBC Sports Business Reporter Darren Rovell reported a Twitter poll that ranked James as the “most disliked athlete ever” just behind Barry Bonds, and ahead of O.J. Simpson and Alex Rodriguez” (ibid). The fact that James could possibly be reviled more that Simpson who has been accused of double homicide can only be explained by the possessive investment in black athletic bodies.
In his classic essay on the “Possessive Investment in Whiteness” (1995) George Lipsitz identifies whiteness “as organizing principle in social and cultural relations” in the United States. In addition, Lipsitz posits that people who identify as white in the United States have historically engaged in “systemic practices of aversion, exploitation, denigration and discrimination” (369) towards people categorized as non-white, especially those categorize as black. Lipsitz tells us that “colonial and early-national legal systems authorized attacks on Native Americans and encouraged the appropriation of their lands. They legitimated racialized chattel slavery…and provided pretexts for exploiting labor, seizing property…(371). For Lipsitz these factors along with others developed white identity in the United States and facilitated, encouraged an allegiance, commitment and sense of ownership to white identity.
A sense of ownership in white identity and a possessive investment in the black body of LeBron James, can explain how the free agency of James went from excitement and anticipation to anger and hate after James selected to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat. Free agency officially began in the NBA on July 1, 2010 and on Thursday, July 8, 2010 after 9:00 P.M. Eastern Standard time. James announced that he was taking his “talents to South Beach.” A 180 degree turn was made in which all the fan bases who had before been begging him to come and play for their team, especially the Cleveland fan base publicly turned on James, doing such things as burning his jersey in public. The owner he had played for, for seven years, Dan Gilbert would publicly declare him a “coward” and a “traitor.”(Gilbert, 2010). On the website of the local newspaper The Cleveland Plain Dealer, next to an article entitled “Cleveland-Akron fans saddened, sickened and angry at LeBron James’ decision to leave Cavaliers,” a “Note for commenters” was posted, it read:
We understand your anger, but please show that Cleveland has class: no racism, no vulgarity, and leave James’ family out of it. Commenters who cross those lines may have their accounts temporarily or permanently suspended. (Scott, 2010).
Quite clearly the comments being posted online about James had already crossed the line into racism, vulgarity and attacks on James’ family, otherwise, the publication would not have felt the need to ask its readers not to write such comments. In the accompanying article local Cleveland fans reactions are quoted. One fan who watched the ESPN special stated “I thought the whole thing was tasteless, despicable, true trash and historic garbage” (ibid). The same article states that “Cleveland city councilman Zak Reed showed up downtown to tell every microphone aimed his way that LeBron James’ decision was “a slap in the face to every citizen” in the city” (ibid).
As Associated Press article published on ESPN.com describe the fan reaction:
They tore his once-beloved No. 23 jersey off their backs and set them on fire. They threw rocks at a 10-story-tall billboard that features James with his head tossed back, arms pointing skyward….Some fans tried to console Earl Mauldin, who was slumped over the bar hiding his face. “I think it was a slap in the face to this city, who had supported him and been behind him since he was in high school,” said Mauldin, who looked disgusted. “To go on national TV and spit in our face like that is very, very, very wrong.” (ESPN, 2010).
An article written by sports journalist Andrian Wojnarowski, published on Yahoo sports on July 16, 2010, eight days after “The Decision,” exemplifies the kind of post-The Decision demonization and vilification that James was subjected to by the sports media, in addition to attacks via social media and fans publicly burning his jersey. The article is entitled “Inside look at LeBron’s free-agent coup,” Wojnarowski puts forward a theory of James, Wade and Bosh engaging in collusion and attacks James ‘character suggesting that James needed discipline, and guidance executives at Nike tried to provide. Wojnarowski’s seems oblivious to how his paternalistic charges of arrogance and ego are similar to the historical language use to describe James’black male athletic predecessors starting in the early twentieth century with Jack Johnson and continuing on with Muhammad Ali and a host of other contemporary black athletes. Does Wojnarowski think the likes of elite white athletes like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are all humble saints who their team owners have never had to placate? It has long been perceived that black athletes are required to follow a different code of conduct than white athletes. It has also been perceived that the media tends to heavily publicize and critique the missteps of black athletes while glossing over the missteps of white athletes. McGianni Celestin notes that:
James isn’t the first professional athlete to leave the city that drafted him and play for another. NFL quarterbacks John Elway and Eli Manning famously refused to play for the franchises that drafted them – acts arguably more insolent than James’ opting to play elsewhere after fulfilling the seven years of his contract. Brett Favre,, another former NFL quarterback, kept several teams hostage for a 2 ½ -year period over whether or not he was going to play or retire, a divalike performance that was probably the most blatant act of selfishness by a known athlete in quite some time…Yet for Elway, Manning and Favre – all of whom are white – the rules seem to have been different. (McGianni Celestin, 2001).
The rules seem to be different also for white NFL player Ben Roethlisberger who has been accused of rape on more than one occasion. He settled a 2008 lawsuit accusing him of rape and “faced similar allegations from…a 20-year old college student in March 2010” (Bellisie, 2012). However, Roethlisberger has the not been the recipient of widespread condemnation and vilification by the media nor the general public. In comparison to the media coverage of NBA player’s single accusation of rape in 2003, media coverage of Roethlisberger’s multiple accusations of rape have been far less vocal. The difference in coverage is rooted in notions of black pathology and criminality. Roethlisberger’s behavior is seen as an outlier; the transgressions of black athletes are seen as affirmation of notions of black pathology and criminality. Different standards of media criticism are applied to black and white athletes by the predominantly white sports media. This is in direct contradiction to notions of post-racialism and the dominant presence of blacks in football and basketball as evidence of racial progress.
Wojnarowski decides to return all the way to prior to the 2008 Beijing Olympics to start building a case filled with innuendo, unnamed sources, to establish James’ villainy of which Wojnarowski will present “The Decision” as the final piece of evidence. Wojnarowski writes:
From Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski to managing director Jerry Colangelo to NBA elders, the issue of James’ immaturity and downright disrespectfulness had become a consuming topic on the march to the Olympics. The course of history could’ve changed dramatically, because there was a real risk that James wouldn’t be brought to Beijing based on fears his monumental talents weren’t worth the daily grind of dealing with him.
Wojnarowski goes on further claiming that “[n]o one could stand James as a 19-year-old in the 2004 Athens Olympics, nor the 2006 World Championships” further in the article he writes of James “[n]o one ever told him to grow up. No one ever challenged him…and everyone had to agree they could no longer let his bossy and belittling act go unchecked.” The author suggests that James was brought in-line when “[b]efore Team USA gathered for the 2007 Tournament of the Americas in Las Vegas, an unmistakable message had been delivered to James through Nike: Unless you change, we’re serious about leaving you home.” This quote from an unnamed source seems hard to believe. Why would Nike ever be willing to go along with any suggestion that the player that they had bestowed a $100 million dollar contract on, just four years before, hoping he would be their successor to Michael Jordan be kept away from a global event such as the 2008 Beijing Olympics? Since Nike is a major sponsor of Team USA Basketball (which is not funded by the U.S. government, and relies on sponsorship and private donations), it is hard to imagine USA Basketball telling Nike that they intended to exclude Nike’s most significant basketball brand endorser outside of the retired Michael Jordan.
Wojnarowski writes “[the Cleveland Cavaliers] knew LeBron James could sometimes be so unaware of the world outside his own needs, his own yes men. Nearly two years later, the whispers in the back of the bus rolling through Beijing had become the loudest statement in free-agency history. The telephone call to the Cleveland Cavaliers came minutes before the 9 p.m. show, and somehow the news still shocked them.” While Wojnarowski displays knowledge in his article that Miami Heat president Pat Riley was a crucial architect in Wade, Bosh, and James coming together, he seems unwilling to accuse Riley of collusion, although he accuses Riley of having “had informants and spies everywhere” which obviously would have given Riley inside information that other NBA team executives did not have. Riley, in Wojnarowski’s eyes, should be allowed to strategize and ruthlessly pursue what his wants, but LeBron James needs to allow the likes of Dan Gilbert and Nike executives to decide what is best for him. Wojnarowski sees James’ supposed ego as the reason that James never legitimately considered signing with the Chicago Bulls. According to him:
For everything the Bulls tried to sell – from owner Jerry Reinsdorf to GM Gar Forman to coach Tom Thibodeau – there had been one thing that troubled James’ about the Bulls pitch: Derrick Rose never called and tried to recruit him… Chicago officials never directly requested Rose to reach out with a call, and the young point guard felt James could’ve always reached out to him had he wanted to discuss the possibility of playing together. James needed to be courted, needed to be wooed and apparently it surprised him there was a star who wasn’t falling over himself to do that.(2010).
Wojnarowski offers no criticism of Gilbert’s post-departure letter about James, or of the player personnel decisions made by the Cavaliers ownership and management that failed to deliver the right supporting cast to help James win an NBA championship. In addition, the version of events that has been offered by other sports reporters such as Brian Windhorst, seems to contradict Wojnarowski’s premise of James being disliked at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. As Tom Ziller puts it “MJ had Pippen, Magic had Kareem and Bird had McHale, while LeBron had Mo Williams” (2013). James exercised his earned free agency rights not get not one, but two great NBA sidekicks which led to him winning two NBA championships with Miami. The resentment against James’ decision is resentment against black ambition.
Black ambition, the exercising of black agency has always been seen as inappropriate and as a deviation from the supposed natural order of things; in which white people are always to be in charge. We can see an extreme example of such racism in 2008, when then candidate Barack Obama was running for the U.S. presidency, Georgia Republican Rep. Lynn Westmoreland described Obama to reports as “uppity.” When noted political consultant David Gergen, was asked by ABC Television for his understanding of the term “uppity” he responded: “[a]s a native of the south, I can tell you… that’s code for…he ought to stay in his place.’ Everybody gets that who is from a Southern background” (Soraghan, 2008). The anger generated by James’ free agency process and final decision was generated by a notion that James had failed to “stay in his place.” Staying in his place, in this instance does not simply mean that James should have stayed in Cleveland. Staying in his place meant that James should not have received the amount of media attention and widespread public and private genuflecting that he did in 2010. As Oakland Tribune columnist Monte Poole describes it in a June, 2010 column:
We’re 22 days away from the July 1 official opening of the free-agent bazaar, yet otherwise sane adults across America are writing and singing love songs dedicated to LeBron. Billionaires and millionaires are behaving like sobbing, screaming teenagers at a Justin Bieber concert. They’re blowing kisses and flashing professionally whitening teeth in hopes of being noticed.
Folks in Cleveland, where LeBron has spent the first seven years of his career, formed a choir of Northern Ohioans and sang a ballad produced for a TV ad. A billboard went up in downtown Chicago. The Mayor of New York scheduled time to record a TV promo in which he pleaded, “Come on LeBron, write the next chapter in NYC basketball history.” (Poole, 2010).
In the case of Obama it was not simply the case of a black man running for the U.S. presidency that made him seem “uppity” in eyes of those like Georgia Republican Rep. Lynn Westmoreland. After all, there had been at least two black Americans who had previously run for the presidential nomination; Shirley Chisholm and Jesse Jackson. What made Obama seem “uppity” in Westmoreland eyes and the eyes of others in my estimation was Obama’s viability as a candidate and Obama’s extreme widespread mainstream popularity and the global public adulation that was being heaped on him. In the same manner it was the viability of James’ enormous talent, and the enormity of the level of attention and widespread adulation, and James’ clear enjoyment of the process that made some label him arrogant. In this context I would say that arrogant served as a synonym for “uppity.”
While the city of Chicago may have decided to put up a Billboard in 2010 in the hopes of luring James away from Cleveland, Cleveland had a LeBron James billboard years before James’ free agency began. When LeBron James played for the Cleveland Cavaliers from 2003 to 2010, a 10-story banner of James hung in the city. (the Cleveland “mayor…declared it public art so it could be protected”) (Pluto and Windhorst, 2007). This banner showed a frontal waist up image of James with his hands spread wide in Christ-like fashion, wearing the team jersey with the words Cleveland spread across his chest. You do not really see James’s face, because his head is pulled back as he seems to be looking into the heavens. Above his head the words “WE ARE ALL WITNESSES” is written followed by the Nike swoosh logo. Clearly, there is a biblical subtext to this language and imagery. The act of witnessing and bearing witness is an important element of the New Testament, take this biblical passage: “But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses” (Matthew 18:16, KJV). In U.S. history we have an entire body of slave narratives all of which require a white person to be a witness asserting that indeed the black author did really write his or her narrative. When Phyllis Wheatley’s poetry was published in 1773, white written testimony was required to validate Wheatley’s authorship. For much of U.S. history black people could not offer testimony in court. James has the word WITNESS tattooed on his leg. In an interview James states of the tattoo it “is for everyone that watches me play. They witness something special. You’re all a witness” (Taddeo, 2009).
Cleveland’s LeBron James mural was the convergence of commerce, church, paganism and American mythology. Who are the “we” and in the “all” who are bearing witness? What matter are these witnesses seeking to establish with their testimony? In the racialized American historical tradition, LeBron James—as a black body—cannot be his own witness. In deciding to announce which team he would be choosing as a free agent to be play for live on cable television, LeBron James was asking all of America to bear witness. About 13 million Americans decided to do so. America saw and did not approve of this act of black ambition and active personal and economic agency.
The massive popularity of certain black athletes with white fans has been viewed as a sign of racial progress. The white public embrace of superstar athletes like Michael Jordan is deceptive, particularly in the case of the NBA, which maintains a strategy of marketing its athletes as everything from ghetto Horatio Alger-like characters to harmless cartoon-like oversized big men such as retired player Shaquille O’Neal and current player Dwight Howard of the Houston Rockets, both who have dubbed themselves Superman, O’Neal has the Superman logo tattooed on his body. Celia Lury writes that, “Nike makes extensive use of the marketing technique of personification, in which the properties of a product…are associated with the characteristics of a person” (2004, Loc 2075). She elaborates further “[b]ut the personality implicated in the Nike logo is not always that of a real individual” (ibid). What whites were embracing was not a black human being named Michael Jordan; but a character manufactured collaboratively by the NBA, Nike, Gatorade and the real Michael Jeffrey Jordan himself.
We are now in the epoch of post-racial, “color-blind racism” (Bonilla-Silva, 2006), which utilizes coded language and may we suggest coded imagery to insist that racism should be categorized with covered wagons and the telegraph as relics of our past. Could it be that this very iconography of commodified black athletic bodies is a visual tool to sustain the new racism which is really a new disguise for the old racism? The power of the iconography of the black athlete is rooted in the notion of difference, which presumes that race is not a social construct and that there is a real biological difference between those of white identity and those of black identity. Then these images can be seen as a safe passageway into the modern “Heart of Darkness,” which today is not some imagined African jungle but inner city communities. This is why players with an urban background who offer a narrative of poverty, single-parent upbringing in crime and drug infested neighborhoods are more marketable figures for companies like Nike. Because black athletes have been “othered” and marketed as characters and action figure-like heroes types their right to the kind of agency that LeBron James exercised in 2010, is outside of the narrative that has been constructed for sports spectators and consumers. After all, superman’s primary concern is saving humanity and not himself.
Given the history of black people in America as property and the longtime denial of black people’s rights to own property; particular their own labor, makes this is unwillingness to accept the agency of black athletes is particularly troubling. It is troubling because it would suggest that ultimately there are no acceptable criteria under which black agency, black excellence, achievement and even black humanity can be accepted in American society. Historian Leon F. Litwack tells us that black Americans after the Civil War and Reconstruction were determined to control their own labor.
After the first agricultural season, planters and Freedmen’s Bureau agents noted the persistence with which blacks refused to labor on Saturday for anyone but themselves, preferring to tend their own garden plots or sell or to sell in town some of the produce they had raised. “Five days I’ll work,” a Mississippi field hand insisted, in refusing to sign a new contract…(Liwack, 1979, 434).
Litwack provides us with further insight into how newly freed blacks were determined to exercise their newly acquired agency over their labor:
On the plantations in Louisiana he managed for the absentee owner, Wilmer Shields experienced that now characteristic period of indecision and maneuvering before obtaining any success with the laborers. The almost always exhausting process of negotiating a contract would begin in the early fall and continue into the next year. In mid-September 1866, for example, Shields already despaired of retaining most of the laborers beyond the present crops. Not only did he find the blacks “very fond of change” but “all of our neighbors want them, and some are offering every inducement they can to get them away—promising teams and horses to take them to town every Saturday.’ (Litwack, 1979, 435)
In both passages Litwack discusses “contracts” referring to the agreements that the newly freed slaves would enter into to provide agricultural labor. Let us draw a comparison between the way the Louisiana plantation manager is describing the manner in which other neighboring plantations were trying to lure away the black laborers with the way that in 2010 other NBA teams were trying to lure away LeBron James from the Cleveland Cavaliers. According to an article published in USA Today at the time:
Betty White made a bid on behalf of staying in Cleveland. And now celeb chef Rachel Ray has posted a video on Facebook trying to lure LeBron to New York to play for the Knicks by promising to make him “his very first home-cooked meal in NYC.” Ray has joined fellow famous New Yorkers including Matt Lauer, Mario Batali, Al Sharpton and Mayor Bloomberg, among others, in an effort to bring the King to The Big Apple (Oldenburg, 2010).
The cities which were considered legitimate contenders for LeBron James to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers to play for their team made elaborate celebrity assisted pitches to persuade James to sign with their team “…the [New York] Knicks showed James a video featuring “Sopranos” stars James Gandolfini and Edie Falco reprising their roles as New Jersey’s favorite mafia couple. The Cavs, however, tapped into James’ favorite show “Family Guy” as a way to convince the free agent to re-sign” (Isola, 2010). Perhaps this pursuit of James was a reflection of the “black power” that was imagined to exist in the NBA.
Longtime Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan writes in 2010:
…the fact is the National Basketball Association is the most egalitarian major institution in our society. In fact, the NBA is so infused with black power that it is the only significant American institution I know of where the white man is inherently perceived to be inadequate to the task (Ryan, 2010, 189).
Ryan’s notion that the NBA or any American institution is egalitarian is false. Contemporary American society is infused with income, class and gender inequality as well as other forms of inequality. It would be wholeheartedly impossible for any institution existing in such a society to be egalitarian, not even the NBA which on its face appears to be an athletic meritocracy dominated by Black athletes in contrast to every other industry in the U.S. The dominant presence of black players in the NBA and their hypervisibility as commodified figures cannot be taken as evidence of these athletes having power that is equivalent to the predominantly white male NBA owners . The backlash to James’ 2010 “Decision” and the subsequent NBA lockout by team owners in 2011 in which they renegotiated the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) between players and owners in their favor refutes the notion of black power and egalitarianism in the NBA as Ryan is suggesting.
This is a case where Ryan and most likely others are conflating visibility with power. Ryan goes on to site not only the dominance of black players, but the presence of black coaches and general managers to support his contention of the racial egalitarian nature of the NBA. There are two problems with Ryan’s thesis; the first which I have identified is the false conflation of visibility with authority. As it will be argued throughout this essay, players do not actually hold the power in the NBA, the power is held in the hands of the white owners (with the exception of black Michael Jordan who owns the Charlotte Bobcats and East Indian Vivek Ranadive who owns the Sacramento Kings), the NBA commissioner has always been a white man, with David Stern serving as commissioner for 30 years and being recently succeed by white Adam Silver. The outcome of the 2011 NBA lockout in which NBA players were the losers in the final collective bargaining agreement, clearly demonstrates that the ownership minority is far more powerful than the player majority. As sports journalist Howard Beck explained in in the New York Times:
The league wanted an overhaul of its $4-billion-a-year enterprise, and it got it, with a nearly $300 million annual reduction in player salaries and a matrix of new restrictions on contracts and team payrolls. The changes mean a $3 billion gain for the owners over the life of the 10-year deal. (Beck, 2011).
Some identified the actions taken by the owners in 2011 as directly resulting from the actions of LeBron James in 2010. NBA owners wanted to make sure that NBA players in the future would severely be restricted from recreating what James, Wade and Bosh did, exercising their free agency to control where and with whom they would labor.
The second problem with Ryan’s thesis is the notion of “white man[ being] inherently perceived to be inadequate to the task.” If the white man is “inherently” inadequate to task of playing basketball than it stands to reason that the black man must be “inherently,” adequate to task of playing basketball. This speaks to position held by many scholars (Carrington:2010, Leonard and King:2011, Zirin:208,) that the sporting accomplishments of black athletes are often credited to their physically abilities while discounting the cognitive skills utilize by black athletes to compete. Black athletes are labeled “natural” while white athletes are credited for using their intelligence for overcoming their lack of natural talent. LeBron James’ body, his particular physicality is a major contributing factor to his success on the NBA court, but his intelligence his ability to read the game as it is happening has been equally important to his success. It is ironic that in trying to showcase the irrelevance of race, Ryan ends up emphasis the relevance of race.
2. The Birth of a Home Town Hero
While it seem that it was sufficient for the like of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant to simple sell sneakers, it seems that this alone is not sufficient for LeBron James. James has been asked to save the city of Cleveland, Ohio. In 1983, then Caviliers owner Ted Stepien sold the Cavaliers to Gordon Gund for $20 million dollars. About 19 years later, Gund would sell the franchise to Dan Gilbert for $375 million because in 2003 the Cavaliers had the number one draft pick in the NBA, which would be LeBron James. James would take the Cavaliers from sporting irrelevancy to sporting significance.
Cavs hadn’t been on national television in more than three years. In the 2006-07 season, more, more than 50 games were on national TV. As the fans cheered and the cameras recorded, more than 300 media members settled into position to document the historic night, just four years after two of the three newspapers that followed the Cavs stopped even covering their road games due to lack of interest…(Pluto and Windhorst, 2007, Loc 87)
Journalist Roberto A. Ferdman writing for the Washington Post states of LeBron James “[w]hile he was a Cavalier, LeBron’s economic impact on the city [of Cleveland] was estimated to be $50 million and $80 million a year” (2014). The city of Cleveland has a similar history to other American urban communities, like Newark, New Jersey and Baltimore, Maryland who have been disastrously impacted by deindustrialization, national and global trends and public policies that took place prior to LeBron James even being born. Gitanja Maharaj writes:
…late-capitalist economic practices…led to deindustrialization and the decline of black urban communities in the post-World War II United States [and] also produced the black basketball star as a commodity and an object of desire for mass consumption… both the “nightmare” of the urban ghetto and the “dream” of a celebrity, professional athlete are manifestations of the economic and cultural workings of late-capitalist America. (1997, 98).
The deindustrialization and urban decline of Cleveland produced the basketball star, global icon, commodity LeBron James that corporate entities Nike, Coca-Cola, Kia, McDonalds and Samsung employ to encourage the consumption of their diverse products. George Lipsitz has written that:
“…dis-investment in America’s cities, factories, and schools since the 1970s disguises the general problems posed to our society by de-industrialization, economic restructuring, and neoconservative attacks on the welfare state as racial problems. It fuels a discourse that demonizes people of color for being victimized by these changes, while hiding the privileges of whiteness by attributing them to family values, fatherhood, and foresight—rather than favoritism. (1995, 379).
It is important to read Lipsitz’s passage alongside Maharaj’s to properly frame and recognized the socio-historical and socio-economic conditions that converged to produce a black sporting body like LeBron James. Born on December 30, 1984 in Akron, Ohio to a 16-year-old mother, Gloria James, he is a legacy of the conservative, neo-liberal policies that were enacted under Ronald Reagan. Cleveland sports columnist Terry Pluto and ESPN Journalist Brian Windhorst write that James “…spent much of his youth in the projects and on the streets. He could tell you of guys from his neighborhood who had been shot, guys in jail…” (2007, Loc 59). The city of Cleveland is representative of the deindustrialization project that has devastated many U.S. cities and particularly negatively impacted black communities, especially in terms of employment, public education and housing.
However, despite the mythology urban communities are not the exclusive places that produce basketball players. In fact, the NBA has many American players who originate from wealthy or middle-class backgrounds, including the sons of former NBA players or athletes from other sports. In addition, there are many international players in the NBA, including the Gasol brothers from Spain, Dirk Nowitzki from Germany, and a host of players from Easter and Western Europe, as well as the African continent. Players from impoverished urban backgrounds have on the face of it proven to be more marketable, with an easily recognizable American rags-to-riches narrative, a form of “black cool” that is imagined to only emerge from black urban communities, especially in light of the fact that Hip-Hop culture has become completely married to the Hollywood produced, conservatively imagined, racialized, locale that is urban America. Proper historical and socio-economic contextualization allows us to see the irony and illogic of characterizing LeBron James 2010 free agency decision to leave Cleveland for Miami as the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers put it his open letter to James as a “cowardly betrayal.” Gilbert characterized James as “our former hero, who grew up in the very region that he deserted…” (Gilbert, 2010). It was not LeBron James who abandoned Cleveland and urban America, and countless black men like him whose names are not known because they did not possess elite athletic talent like LeBron James that would have enabled them to escape the dire poverty that they were born into due the United States long history of anti-black racism.
3. The Signifying Black Athlete and the Possessive Investment in Black Bodies
Historian James Oakes describes the condition of New World plantation slavery in the United States in this fashion “…property rights in slaves were a manifestation of the master’s power, the slaves’ powerlessness was symbolized by the fact that they did not legally “own” anything themselves. “…the slave had no legal claim…to the fruits of his or her labor…the slave had no legal capacity to make a contractual arrangement to sell [their]labor power… (1990, 5)
The real decision LeBron James made in 2010 was the decision to exercise the right to sell his labor power. Even though we are more than a century removed from emancipation and a few decades removed from the Civil Rights movement, black entitlement is not fully accepted in America. Even in the case of LeBron James in which he was exercising his free agency rights, which had been collectively bargaining between the NBA and the NBA Players Union, there is an unwillingness to accept black agency. LeBron James is the latest figure in a long history of black American male athletes who have captured the imagination of both white America and black America. Jack Johnson, Muhamad Ali, Jackie Robinson, Mike Tyson, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Bill Russell and Joe Louis and Jesse Owens are among LeBron’s black American sporting forefathers. In contemporary terms LeBron James should be seen as the basketball progeny of Michael Jordan and Allen Iverson. Michael Jordan created the marketing blueprint for LeBron James and all subsequent modern black athletes from Tiger Woods to Kobe Bryant in not only becoming brand endorsers but becoming brands themselves. Jordan might be singularly responsible for the global hypervisibility of black male athletes in the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
While Jordan assisted in providing “profit and pleasure” he did not use his visibility to support or participate in any political action. William C. Rhoden writes of Michael Jordan “[h]ad he said “jump,” had he said “protest,” most athletes would have jumped; most would have protested. Instead Jordan said, “Be like Mike.” (2006, 199). Rhoden writes further of Jordan “[f]reed by the Civil Rights movement to be neutral, he’s lightly shrugged off the historical mission of black athletes to push for progress and power” (ibid). Jordan possessed a great deal of visibility, which he never attempted to convert into political authority, nor to attempt to swing the dynamics of owners and players further into the player’s favor. Thus an aspect of the Jordan blueprint is visibility without authority, a form of apolitical-ness.
Jordan was the first black athlete to have so many multiple endorsement deals and be accepted by mainstream America; O.J. Simpson is perhaps Jordan’s most immediate predecessor in that category. According to Rhoden “Jordan surpassed O.J. Simpson as the world’s most marketable black man, becoming a major marketing tool and proof that a dark-skinned African American could be embraced as a pitchman for all” (2006, 201). The links between Simpson and Jordan in their mainstream acceptance was their unwillingness to offer criticism of social problems, particularly those dealing with race. Both men became golf enthusiast. The American golf country club is one of America’s most enduring places of spatial, gender and class segregation. The Augusta National Golf Club, the home of the Masters tournament did not admit its first African-American member until 1990, and in 2012 admitted black conservative Republican and former U.S. Secretary of State, Condolezza Rice as one of its first two female members (Bumiller, 2012). Simpson and Jordan’s devotion to golf and admittance into U.S. golf clubs, cannot be read as simply the two men engaging in a recreational pastime. Their participation in golf as two mainstream black American athletes, the adopting of this white elite cultural practice, must be read as their allegiance to and acceptance of the American racial status quo. Jordan has not experienced the unprecedented fall from grace that Simpson experienced, he was far more successful than Simpson as an endorser, and remains as a valuable commodified figure today.
Jordan is however, the first be so extensively commodified, serving as pitchmen for a range of products and having his physical identifiers such as his clean shaven head and the silhouette of his body in flight to score a basket become globally recognizable signs. Celia Lury tells us that brands have “become one of the key cultural forces of our time” (2004, Loc 2). During Michael Jordan’s basketball playing career the Gatorade Company created an advertising campaign around him which used the tagline “Be Like Mike.” This seemingly innocent tagline had a deeper socio-cultural meaning than has perhaps not been fully understood. The notion of being like Mike allowed whites to project themselves unto Michael Jordan’s black athletic body and even develop a sense of ownership in Jordan’s body. This modern sporting phenomenon is an aspect of the possessive investment in black bodies, in which Jordan’s body became a site of “profit and pleasure” for a range of constituents. Not all modern black athletes have been willing to consistently allow their black bodies to serve as sites of “profit and pleasure” the script of the possessive investment in black athletic bodies has disrupted by more than one athlete. Oftentimes, it has been one singular moment in which this disruption happened. For Muhamad Ali one could say that his moment was his refusal to go fight in the Vietnam war, once he uttered the words “I ain’t got no quarrel with the Vietcong” (Zirin, 2008, 144) he became vilified throughout the United States. In July, 2010 when LeBron James uttered the words “…in this fall I’m going to take my talents to South Beach and join the Miami Heat” live on ESPN he too was subject to vilification by a large, predominantly white segment of the American public.
We can come to understand why this vilification happens when engage in critical historical examination of the lives and times of major African-American male athletes through the lens of history and “cultural semiotics” (Martin Alcoff, 2008). Linda Martin Alcoff describes cultural semiotics as “a sign system that works on objects of all sorts, bodies as well as other kinds, to interject meanings and values and to map relationships, beyond any conscious intent or even conscious awareness” (2008, Loc 66). Black athletes and their bodies, beginning specifically with Jack Johnson have been serving as racialized signs in the U.S. Kornelia Tancheva offers a theory of signification that is useful to this argument. Tancheva utilizing Charles “Pierce’s concept of infinite semiosis, (2005, 532) writes:
[No]…sign elements [are] fixed, and each interpretant can become a represetamen of another represented or even a different represented, which in turn becomes a new representamen and so on ad infinitum…a fluctuation of meaning, a constantly changing and hence relative signification that does not operate within fixed boundaries…(2005, 532).
Tancheva states that the “instability of signification is particularly evident in cultural signs…(532). Elaborating further Tancheva writes that “Pierce’s model of infinite semiosis [insists] that a sign stands for something only because someone interprets it as a sign…(533). The black athlete in America is a dynamic, mutating, racialized cultural sign which only historical analysis and contextualization can make stable enough for proper interpretation. In analyzing LeBron James we must take into account the various groups who are interpreting the sign that is LeBron James, while recognizing that this sign is neither static nor singular. A distinction must be made between the “white gaze,” the “black gaze” and the multiplicity of gazes of the NBA’s global audience. Rhoden contends that NBA has taken “…black style and showmanship…[and left] behind all of the more “inconvenient” features of blackness in America.” He contends that the NBA has made “race visible and invisible simultaneously” through having “blacks act neutral, but perform spectacularly. Like Mike (2006, 204-5). We can label this the Jordan blueprint which has been adopted by a host of athletes including Tiger Woods and LeBron James; this act of being race neutral and spectacular. The recent remarkable fall of Tiger Woods, in which Woods was the darkened subject of a Vanity Fair cover, a lá O.J. Simpson and the backlash to James’ “Decision” how easily race can transcend from being supposedly invisible to visible.
The Jordan Blueprint
The Jordan brand became a cultural force of the mid-1980s and early 1990s and continues to be a powerful brand today, twelve years after Jordan’s retirement from basketball.
Jordan Brand is the name of a Nike subsidiary and on the Jordan Brand website we are invited to “Meet the family handpicked by MJ to carry the torch, The Family of flight” which consists of a collection of athletes such as basketball players Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, Russell Westbrook and Joe Johnson. The family also includes athletes in other sports such as baseball player Derek Jeter, white NASCAR driver Denny Hamlin and women’s basketball player Maya Moore. However, it is clear that the Jordan Brand is basketball focused, with far more basketball players in this fictional branding family. LeBron James is not part of Jordan’s family of flight. James wears the number 23 in honor of Jordan and grew up idolizing Jordan, however, just as Jordan was dubbed “Air Jordan” LeBron James has been dubbed “King James” and the court can only have one king. Jordan’s critique of James’s decision to join the Miami Heat and Jordan’s declaration in 2013 that in a choice between Los Angeles Lakers basketball player Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, he would chose Bryant; suggest that perhaps Jordan is not completely at ease with basketball having a new king ( “MJ: Give me Kobe over LeBron” ESPN, 2013).
LeBron James did not need Michael Jordan’s permission to take Jordan’s branding blueprint to construct his marketing career. LeBron is signed to Nike and in 2012 sale of his signature shoes reached “$300 million in the U.S.” alone (Badenhausen, 2014). LeBron does not need to be part of Jordan’s fictional family of flight, because it is quite clear he most likely will be the patriarch of his own branding family. While LeBron James has publicly admits to idolizing Michael Jordan growing up and looking to Jordan as early role model, he has not made strong mention of now retired basketball player Allen Iverson as influence on him. I would submit that James is a cultural marriage of Michael Jordan and Allen Iverson. Like James, Iverson was a number one draft pick, he was selected first in 1996, and seven years before LeBron James would enter the NBA. New In 2006, New York Times journalist Liz Robbins described Iverson’s impact and influence on the NBA, in this manner:
…N.B.A. Commissioner David Stern attempted to polish his product by cracking down on do-rags, T-shirts and big jewelry last year…Allen Iverson had the kind of image that the league did not want to see…Iverson, the All-Star guard with the cornrows and tattoos, went from being the kid with a crossover to an international hip-hop icon, to a Philadelphia idol, to a player who scorned practice and his coach…(Robbins, 2006)
Of the many things that can be said of Michael Jordan, that he became a Hip-Hop icon is not one of them, Michael Jordan was celebrated by Hip-Hop culture, embraced by black youth and urban black communities; but Jordan himself was not a product of Hip-Hop culture in the fashion of Allen Iverson. One could say that while Hip-Hop youth may have aspired to “be like Mike,” they felt that they were already like Allen Iverson, and Iverson was like them. Iverson’s popularity was predicated on the notion of him being an authentic Hip-Hop entity. As scholar Mark Anthony Neal tells us “[b]lackness in hip-hop has been recast in terms of a transcultural and transnational identity mediated through sound, material culture, and the visual as well as through personal performance”(2011, 22). Neal goes on to identify blackness which has now been fused with Hip-Hop as “a signifier that inculcates ideas in particular about gender, race, identity, and urbanity at the site of the body” (ibid). It is in this context of “performance” and “urbanity” that we are identifying Allen Iverson, and LeBron James as Hip-Hop products.
Jordan emerged from a middle-class, two parent household, “urbanity” and Hip-Hop is always framed around the ‘absent black father,’ and black single-motherhood. Iverson and James are the sons of teenage single mothers. Jordan did not favor tattoos or ostentatious jewelry, two things that have been designated as signifiers of ‘urbanity’ and Hip-Hop culture. One could say that Jordan’s acceptance by mainstream America was partly founded on Jordan being far from Hip-Hop. Jordan offered a respectable, middle-class and safe brand of black masculinity. While Iverson offered the “bad Negro” (Richardson, 2007) brand of masculinity that the likes of Jack Johnson and Jim Brown had represented in the 20th century. Iverson and James both emerged from economically depressed communities, Hampton, Virginia for Iverson and Akron, Ohio for James. James walks a tightrope between perceived Hip-Hop authenticity of Iverson and the mainstream marketing acceptability of Michael Jordan.
Sports columnist Harvey Araton described the post-Michael Jordan, Chicago Bulls championship period in the NBA as the “Synthetic Jordan Era” (2006). Araton argues that this era in basketball was marked by “…young emerging stars [with] a sole shoe company-driven agenda to be like Mike.” He labels the basketball players of that era, of which he identifies Allen Iverson as a leading figure as “unwitting byproducts of the most prolific campaign the sports industry had seen…” the marketing of brand Jordan (2006). Rather than becoming a synthetic Jordan, or a synthetic Iverson, LeBron James has managed to seamlessly synthesize Jordan’s branding blueprint with Iverson’s presumed Hip-Hop verite.
The focus of historians and other scholars’ examination of the black athlete in the United States in modern times has been integration. That is, the exclusion of black athletes from joining white athletes to compete as equals in the boxing ring, on the tennis court, the baseball field or the football field. Today in 2015, long past Jackie Robinson’s integration of Major League Baseball in 1947, 75 percent of NBA players are black and 92 percent of National Football League (NFL) players are black. One might assume that the participation and presence of black athletes in U.S. professional sports has been universally accepted and that there is no resistance to the black presence in and domination of sports such as football and basketball. However, there is white resentment and resistance to the overwhelming presence of black athletes in American sports. As has been previously explained the black presence in major league sports is both visible and invisible and requires careful management for its white consumers.
The mandate of former NBA Commissioner David Stern had when he assumed his position in 1984 was to find a way to make the NBA palatable to white audiences. As journalist Charles P. Pierce writes “[t]he argument that the NBA was “too black” to market itself was seriously made by serious people in an age when an organized backlash against the achievements of the civil rights movement was asserting itself…” (2014). After 30 years as commissioner Stern has retired, the league just signed a new television broadcasting deal with ESPN and TNT, estimated to be worth $24 billion dollars; so we can agree that by the economic metric Stern succeeded in making black bodies palatable to a white audience. What is this magic formula that Stern used to make Black players palatable to white spectators?
Stern’s management and marketing strategies tapped into the white desire to control black bodies, to enjoy the spectacle of black bodies as entertainments, particularly if white audiences could be convinced that black athletes were happy and grateful to for the privileged of entertaining their white superiors. As George Yancy writes the “Black body[ is] an entity that is to be feared, disciplined, and relegated to those marginalized, imprisoned, and segregated spaces that restrict Black bodies from “disturbing” the tranquility of white life, white comfort, white embodiment, and white being” (2008, Loc 137). Much has been written about how enslaved black people in the United States and black people during the Jim Crow era deftly and strategically used the performance and pretext of joviality to quell and manage white anxiety. As Liwitwick writes:
“…the education acquired by each slave was remarkably uniform, consisting largely of lessons in survival and accommodation—the uses of humility, the virtues of ignorance, the arts of evasion, the subtleties of verbal intonation, the techniques by which feelings and emotions were masked, and the occasions that demanded the flattering of white egos and the placating of white fears (Litwick, 1979, XI).
Stern could not have accomplished this successful selling of black athletes if the majority of black NBA players were not willing to cooperate with him in “performing” for white audiences and allowing the commodification of their black bodies. Not every black NBA player has been willing to follow the script provided by David Stern during his 30 year tenure as the commissioner of the NBA. Among the most notable player who was unwilling to perform in the manner that David Stern wanted was Allen Iverson. It is widely believed that Stern instituted a dress code for NBA players, requiring them to wear business attire at NBA events including when they are sitting on the bench for a game they are not playing in. Allen Iverson’s penchant for 1990s Hip-Hop attire, gold chains, his hair styled in cornrows brought too much unapologetic blackness to the NBA.
LeBron James in the twenty-first century being is held accountable by white America for his “unforgivable blackness,” just as Jack Johnson was held accountable for his “unforgivable blackness,” from 1908 to 1915 when he reigned as the heavyweight boxing champion of the world. It still remains unacceptable to both be the best and be black. Although America has given up hope of finding a “Great White Hope” that can become a dominant superstar in the NBA, white discomfort with black achievement and the black presence is still active within the large white NBA fan base.
Of the four U.S. sports league the NBA is the most star-driven; fans do not simply attend a game to see the Los Angeles Lakers or the Cleveland Lakers but to see the superstars of those teams Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. Knowing this the NBA prices tickets accordingly, it will cost a fan more too see a Brooklyn Nets home game if they are playing against LeBron James and the Cavaliers, then if the Nets are facing the Orlando Magic a team that does not currently have a marquee superstar. A star player does not simply create revenue for his team but for the entire league; more fans will attend a game in which the home team is facing a star opponent. Studies show that ratings for NBA games correspond to the presence of a star athlete. Ironically, enough the backlash and anger created by LeBron James decision to leave Cleveland to play for Miami, brought increased interest in the league and dramatically increased television viewership.
The NBA one of the United States most significant globalized “cultural enterprises” (Mahara, 1997) offers us a particular display of the white possessive investment in black bodies; specifically the bodies of black male basketball players.
This process has been duplicated with other black sporting bodies besides Jordan. LeBron James has not only inherited Michael Jordan’s position as the best basketball player in the world, and Nike’s best athletic shoe salesman, but also Jordan’s status as the most hypervisible black athletic body in the world. Though in the sports of basketball and football black men have supplemented white men and a black man now currently occupies the White House; black men have not yet joined the “power elite” of the United States (Mills, 1956). C. Wright Mills defined the powerful as “those who are able to realize their will, even if others resist it” (1956, 9). Black athletes in the sport of basketball have not been able to fully realize their will when faced with the resistance of team owners and a white public that fears and resents black ambition and agency. The results of the 2011 NBA lockout clearly indicate it is NBA owners who are most able to exercise their will in the face of player resistance. In an article published in the Christian Science Monitor the day after James’ “The Decision” aired had this to say:
Appropriate enough that someone whose nickname includes the word “King” should pull off such a coup. Worked out among friends at a “summit” earlier this summer, the James free-agency move – aired live as ESPN‘s “The Decision” segment Thursday night – in one stroke shifted the NBA’s power structure …
“It is not until you parse the words that you realize what’s going on, and honestly, what is going on is impressive,” wrote ESPN.com’s Mark Kreidler last month. “It is a transfer of power from owner to player – and on the players’ side, a union within a union. [It] absolutely suggests that a tiny handful of elite players could conspire – that’s the familiar use of the word, not the legal – to determine the future direction of the league. Wow. That’s your modern-era power grab.” (Jonsson, 2010)
At the heart of the possessive investment in black bodies, is a powerful sense of ownership over black bodies. The spectacle of drafting black bodies in which a white fan’s favorite team gets to select from a pool of mostly black bodies to find the desired likely black body to help their team win is familiar and comfortable. In the case of the NBA draft the select players who are expected to go high in the draft are invited to the draft where the sit at individual tables with family members and friends to wait to hear their name being called. Once their names are called there is the repeated ritual of hugs with family and friends, going up on the stage to receive a baseball cap with their new team’s NBA logo and handshakes with the NBA commissioner. Afterwards, there is always a camera waiting to have the draftee express his gratitude for being drafted and the pledging of his loyalty to his new team and NBA city. This a spectacle in which black bodies are affirming their commitment to providing profit and pleasure while affirming particular racial narratives. Biographical information is provided about the young men in the draft pool and it is often about the hardships they have had to endure, particularly the absence of fathers.
I have previously submit that the need to have black bodies always engaged in providing “profit, pleasure, and affirmation of dominant [racial] narratives” is a manifestation of the possessive investment in black bodies. I have identified LeBron James 2010 free agency decision as an instance which disrupted the possessive investment in his black bodies because of James’ failure to deliver “profit and pleasure.” It also challenged the narrative of white team owner domination over black players in the NBA. As Litwick has suggested in his description of the labor negotiations that took place between plantation owners and the freedmen after emancipation and the characterization of blacks as “saucy,” “impudent” and “presuming.” (1979, 257). The discomfort with black agency and black control of black labor is rooted in slavery and emancipation. George Yancy contends that in North America: “[t]he black body is a historical project and as such is capable of taking up new historical meanings…”
What the black body of Jack Johnson meant in the 1910s is different than what the black body of Michael Jordan meant in the 1980s. In a similar fashion what the black body of O.J. Simpson meant in the 1970s was different than what the black body of O.J. Simpson meant in 1994 after he was accused of murdering his former wife, the white Nicole Brown Simpson. Yancy describes the black body as being “subject to cultural configuration and reconfiguration” (2008, Loc 284), and in the case of O.J. Simpson we actually observed this occurring. O.J. Simpson’s black body had been quite acceptable to whites, appearing in car rental commercials and in the Hollywood films post his football career. In June 1994 Time Magazine published a story on Simpson with the headline “American Tragedy,” the publication deliberately used photo manipulation to make Simpson appear darker; a fact that was made clear when Newsweek Magazine used the same photo without the enhancements. Time Magazine reconfigured Simpson’s image; to then place upon him the historical myth of the black man as beast, monster and threat to white society.
The black body of LeBron James has had many meanings. As a high school basketball Phenom his represented economic opportunity to college coaches, friends and associates. To Nike and Adidas who both aggressively competed to sign James to an endorsement deal before he was even drafted by an NBA team, James’ body means profit. LeBron James ‘body is a global commodity.
Herman Gray proclaims that:
Black heterosexual masculinity is figured in the popular imagination as the basis of masculine hero worship in the case of rappers; as naturalized and commodified bodies in the case of athletes; as symbol of menace and threat in the case of black gang members; and as noble warriors in the case of Afrocentric nationalists and Fruit of Islam ( 1995, 402).
Black athletes function in the popular American imagination as all of these things; as heroes, as naturalized and commodified bodies, as menaces and threats and sometimes as noble warriors. In true Hollywood-like Shakespearean fashion different NBA players are cast as different characters to play out the intersecting American melodrama of race, class and gender. The NBA has purposefully built its contemporary popularity on this approach. David Halberstam has documented how a multitude of events, from technological innovations, economic trends all converged to help popularize and construct the modern globalized NBA, particularly the creation of ESPN in 1979. He tells us that “…by the eighties America exported not its machine products or its cars but its culture…” (1999, 130). Halberstam elaborates:
As Nike and other companies featured individual players such as Michael Jordan as stars, and as the league and the network [ESPN] became coconspirators in the promotion of stars, a major new direction, barely understood at the time, was being chartered for the league. It was part of a larger new phenomenon taking place in sports, and in society in general, but most nakedly and obviously in basketball…Individual players were now being promoted rather than teams…the cult of personality, was now…becoming mandatory as the sport sought to broaden its fan base. Its advocates, owners, and sponsors no longer saw themselves competing against rival teams or even rival sports. Now they were competing against…against rock stars, movie stars… (1999, 132).
Historian John Mathew Smith chronicled how the NBA in the 1970s and 80s marketed and profited from the manufacturing of a rivalry white Boston Celtic player Larry Bird and black Los Angeles Laker player Earvin “Magic” Johnson. The whiteness of Bird along with his mid-western roots and imagined “humbleness” was juxtaposed against Johnson and the largely Lakers players and “Showtime” flashy team style. Mathew Smith tells us:
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the NBA was a “showplace for American racial tension.” Most of the players on the court were black, while the owners, coaches, general managers, referees, broadcasters, writers, and fans were mostly white. These racial tensions were most visible when the Celtics, the whitest team of the 1980s, played against the predominantly black Los Angeles Lakers…Some…viewed Bird, the only white superstar of the time as an even greater hero because he played in Boston, a city with a history of deep racial conflict between a large population of conservative whites and a relatively small black population (2011, 2-3).
The introduction of superstars is what fueled the global success of the NBA. The modern NBA relies on the Hip-Hop infused hyper black masculinity, a floating signifier of urban cool that is offered to white spectators to consume. This particular essentialized brand of black masculinity that the NBA has sought to co-opt is not without its risks. The NBA is largely dependent on black male athletic talent and the non-white fascination with and fears of black male bodies; and creates marketing strategies that continuously encourage the possessive investment in black athletic bodies. However, on more than one occasion the NBA’s black bodies have gone beyond the boundaries that the NBA’s white fans fine acceptable and the NBA has had to find ways to disciplined its black bodies and convinced its white consumers that these black bodies are safe once again for whites to consume.
LeBron’s 2014 decision to leave the Miami Heat and return to play for the Cleveland Cavaliers, which he announced in a Sports Illustrated essay rather than a television special; shows his own understanding of the need to placate white consumers. After “The Decision” in 2010 James popularity took a hit, with his commercial endorsement visibility somewhat diminishing. His recasting as an NBA villain increased interest in the NBA in 2010, with television viewership increasing, particularly of games James played in. James will no longer publicly mentioned race as a cause of the public backlash of 2010, adhering to the Jordan blueprint in that manner. James’s endorsement portfolio since his returning to Cleveland has increased. Currently, we have a commercial airing in which LeBron James appears seemingly at home having a breakfast of Fruity Pebbles cereal. Because of what appears to be noise from his children playing James cannot enjoy his cereal in peace. James leaves the house to take refuge in his white Kia sedan parked in the front yard of his residence. James with his Nike sneakers on and his wedding band clearly visible finds peace and quiet inside the Kia. The commercial is not officially a fruity pebbles commercial, it is a commercial for the Kia sedan which is billed as “Fit for a King.” However, this is cross marketing at its highest, the Fruity Pebbles are there by design. James has a signature line of sneakers from Nike, which are called Fruity Pebbles, presumably inspired by James’ love of the breakfast cereal. The domesticity of the commercial is clearly part of the effort to rebrand James after his casting as a villain after the airing of “The Decision.” In this manner James is returning to the Jordan blueprint. However, James donning of a hooded sweatshirt along with several other Miami Heat players in a photograph in a tribute to Trayvon Martin and his subsequent wearing of an “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirt, during warm-ups of an NBA game, (in which Prince William was in attendance no less), which video shows are the last words of Eric Garner, who died as a result of a police chokehold in New York City, suggest that James does not strictly plan to adhere to the Jordan blueprint of race and political neutrality.
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