By Brandon Spencer, Columnnist
MOUNT BERRY, Ga. – LeBron James is arguably one of the better known household names in all of sports, and this is due to how both he and Nike have collaborated on his branding. The image they have projected and curated remove many of the the shackles of stereotypes that have long chained Black athletes, not only in the NBA but in many sports.
Even while still in high school, James embraced the pressure placed on his shoulders rather than shying away from it. Emblematic of this embrace is the tattoo, “Chosen1,” that he had inked from shoulder to shoulder on his back while still in high school, in 2002. And he has long claimed that he is different from other players not because of his physical attributes, but due to his preternatural ability to read the game.
By making this claim, and backing it up on the court, James broke free from the injurious stereotype of Black athletes as little more than physical specimens, thus “de-racializing” himself in order to be perceived as the NBA’s “Messiah.” King James. This marketing plan and mythic narrative born in Beaverton, Ore., at Nike Inc., propelled James beyond race such that he is perceived more as “The Chosen One” and, therefore, less by the color of his skin.
While what James and Nike have done to create this image for himself is incredibly smart, what does it say about how media and fans perceive Black athletes if they reject the narrative? The narrative works primarily because, well, he’s LeBron James, an extraordinary athlete and competitor and one of the best to ever play the game. Consider how one might attempt such a mythic narrative with someone of lesser ability and success on the court? It simply wouldn’t work.
Escaping the bonds of stereotype like Houdini from a submerged box isn’t just a topic for basketball; it is an issue that affects Black athletes in most if not all sports. Most pundits and talking heads covering the English Premier League, for example, tend to portray Black players as adding “pace and power” to the side, never mentioning anything about their ability to read the game or bring mental acuity to bear on an opposing defense or offense.
The player that comes to mind is Paul Pogba, a midfielder for Manchester United and one of the most intelligent players in the league. Still, he often bears the brunt of ridicule whenever he’s off form for being “too weak for a player of his type.” This coded language basically means that because he is a tall, Black athlete, he should be stronger than the otherwise “normal” white players, which is to neglect entirely his ability to read the game. His dilemma: Fit the stereotype as strong, powerful but for whom intelligence isn’t necessary, or demonstrate extraordinary tactical intelligence and be perceived as weak.
Why does a player of color have to point out and emphasize certain attributes about him- or herself when those who watch and understand the sport should be able to discern the skill set of the athlete? Could it have something to do with the fact that it tends to be older, white males who are calling the games and creating the narratives? Could it be that they prefer to credit someone of their own race with intelligence, smarts, acumen?
We might remember the great Magic-Bird rivalry in the NBA of the 1980s and early 1990s. Magic, a Black phenom out of Michigan State, brought athleticism and God-given gifts to the rivalry, while Bird, a flat-footed, blue-collar white player had to rely on his intelligence and world-renowned work ethic. No one ever spoke of Magic staying after practice to take 500 free throws. Few ever credited Bird with basketball abilities straight from the cradle. These narratives are far too simple.
The home run race in baseball in 1998 also comes to mind, an epic, season-long battle pitting the Paul Bunyan-esque Mark McGwire of the St. Louis Cardinals against the “just happy to be here” sidekick from the Dominican Republic, Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs.
Throughout this race, media emphasized the legacy of McGwire, putting their focus on him to create a quintessentially American icon within the sport, in the process largely ignoring Sosa, who was on the verge of accomplishing the same feat. McGwire was deemed as an “American hero” by the white sportswriters, while Sosa, an outsider, provided simply a foil to the erstwhile white savior.
If athletes with the abilities of Sosa and Pogba can’t have their true skill sets recognized and accurately portrayed to the public, what does this mean for every other athlete of color playing at the top levels of their sports? Must one require the talents and opportunities of LeBron James, “The Chosen One” as early as age 18, to transcend his or her race and, thus, be more objectively covered and perceived by sports media and fans? Or are they fated to remain in the submerged box of stereotype until time or air has run out?