By Alex Bolling, Columnist
MOUNT BERRY, Ga. – When we watch sports, we don’t usually pay much attention to how media portray the athletes we love. For example, when we hear the name, “LeBron James,” we think “superstar” or “phenom” or maybe even “GOAT.” (The GOAT handle still belongs to Michael Jordan, but that’s a different column.). However, if we’re honest with ourselves, what can we say that we actually know about the real or authentic person we encounter only through media?
We know that LeBron has cooperated with Nike to co-produce the brand that is, “The King,” “The Chosen One,” a brand that depends on a Christ-like narrative and mythology. Of course, as an organizing story or myth, this narrative is ideal for mediation.
We also know that LeBron is a stellar Black athlete. However, when media portray and celebrate this “King,” or some might even say “Messiah,” narrative, they tend to diminish his Blackness, a process called de-racialization. This helps Nike, the NBA, and LeBron himself reach wider, whiter audiences. It’s well known that most of the NBA’s athletes are Black, while most of the NBA’s audience is white.
If we take a look at how this “king” is shown to the world, we see that many place him among the top athletes in the world, seeing it even as his destiny. “The Chosen One” narrative formed even as LeBron hit the hardwoods as a high school player; King James inked the “Chosen1” tattoo on his upper back after finding himself featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 2002.
There are also other aspects that play into the Christ-like narrative, such as Nike merchandise with the tagline, “We Are All Witnesses.” We are his congregation, disciples, and apostles. Nike and LeBron also collaborated in 2011 to create “The LeBrons,” a fictitious family created to sell James’s signature shoe featuring LeBron’s voice as or for all of the characters. Is it an accident that LeBron’s alter egos number three? The Holy Trinity of LeBrons?
Establishing a Christian narrative is smart for Nike and LeBron, because a Christian narrative is normative in America. James is also able to create a persona distinct from other athletes and to choreograph how the world sees him and, make no mistake, how we should relate to his brand. For example, James has said that he can “see things before they even happen,” unlike most players. James calls attention to his greatness as a by-product of his mental ability rather than his physical ability, which serves to negate stereotypes about Black athletes.
While the audience sees this narrative dramatized, we also see how Nike and media coverage whitewash athletes such as James. Cued by Nike’s branding, media attempt to separate the athlete from much of the culture and background that produced him. Because the NBA is a predominantly Black sport with a predominantly white audience, the media that broadcast and cover the NBA cater to this ticket-buying, game-watching audience. De-racializing produces a “safe” image rather than one that might alienate by being too “Black.” White audiences get uncomfortable when exposed to cultures and norms with which they are not accustomed. Lando Calrissian in A Star Wars Story anyone?
Cued by Nike, media are able to whitewash LeBron and portray him in ways that downplay or separate him from Black masculinity and the negative stereotypes associated with being a Black man. These stereotypes include being lazy and violent. Rap, tattoos, firearms, etc. Perhaps de-racialization explains why so many images of LeBron appear in black and white rather than color, to draw attention away from his Black skin.
Even with all that Nike and media have tried to do to neutralize his Blackness, James is doing increasingly more to use his agency and influence to voice his opinions and to show the world how proud he is to be a Black man. This has taken time – and several NBA titles on no fewer than three different NBA teams, but I admire how vocal he has become when it comes to social injustice. James has emerged as outspoken leader in the Black Lives Matter movement and on issues such as police brutality with respect to Black Americans. Even when he is slandered by white “fans” and news commentators who tell him, “Shut up and dribble,” James stands strong and continues to use his platform to speak truth. We got a Black president. We almost got a Black 007. And Captain America is about to become Black. Maybe it’s time to embrace a Black “Chosen One” to take us further toward the Promised Land of racial equity and equality. Certainly, it is time to stop asking professional athletes to stop expressing themselves on issues as important as social justice.