Rehabilitating the Investment in Sports Stardom

November 5, 2010
By | 7 Comments

One of sports’ biggest superstars, LeBron James, made waves this summer with his decision to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers to join fellow All-Stars Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh with the Miami Heat, an announcement he made with a one-hour hype machine on ESPN. James faced a wide range of criticism after the announcement in July:  the Cavaliers owner likened James to Benedict Arnold; Charles Barkley called the announcement a “punk move” and said the move to Miami will change James’ legacy; Michael Jordan said it’s something he never would have done. During the NBA season opener last week, as “King James” made his on court debut in a Heat uniform, Nike aired this 90-second spot for LeBron (below). According to Nike’s agency, the spot allows James to “address his off-season controversy head-on.”

Releasing commercials prior to an athlete’s return to sports for image rehabilitation is a familiar tactic for Nike, evidenced by the Tiger Woods ad featuring the voice of his dead father that aired the day before Woods returned to professional golf. But in both cases, Nike comes months late to the game. Waiting to “address off-season controversy” until the day the season (or golf tournament) actually starts only reconstitutes the very discussion Nike is trying to move beyond. Sure, the problems with Woods’ and James’ image are not quite comparable, and sure, both spots resulted in viral video buzz for Nike, but when it comes to the task of recuperating the tarnished image of a sports superstar, I’m not sure either of these ads get the job done.

This brings up a host of questions that I’ve been mulling over recently: first, is there even a need for Nike to actively rehabilitate either star’s image with television ads? And why these athletes and not others? Many sports columnists, commentators, and advertising industry execs are of the opinion that the negative impact of both Woods’ and James’ controversies would blow over once they returned to their respective sport, relying on the assumption that their athletic skill would outweigh their off-the-court misgivings. After all, Kobe Bryant returned to endorsement deals less than a year after being accused of rape with only a statement by Nike touting his athletic skill and basketball ability, not major image management efforts. What about Ben Roethlesberger, Serena Williams, or Brett Favre? What does this say about the specific contexts of sport stardom and our expectations (or lack of) for professional athletes as opposed to other celebrities? How do gender and race play into these narratives and/or athletes’ ability to play the villain, anti-hero, or underdog?

Second, if Nike’s ads don’t really work to rehabilitate the tarnished image of sports superstars, then what do they do? Certainly the ads contribute to the discourse about each star’s persona, which like any star text, give us a way to talk about the world around us. As Richard Dyer notes, stars serve as an important discursive space for the construction, narration, and negotiation of cultural meaning and social hierarchies. The James ad, in particular, comments on the way stars and star personas are inherently open for interpretation and unmoored from concrete meaning. Featuring James looking directly to the camera and asking, “What should I do?” followed by a host of somewhat playfully rhetorical follow up questions (“Should I admit I ruined my legacy?” “Should I just sell shoes?”), the spot takes a self-reflexive stance on the very precariousness of sports stardom. Asking “Should I be who YOU want me to be?” acknowledges this complexity and opens up a space for the viewer to ponder just what meaning they assign to James as a person, as an athlete, and as a star. But ultimately, these spots seek to fix the star text as a branded commodity. The complexity in LeBron’s question of “What should I do?” is of course neatly answered with Nike’s “Just Do It,” signaling a desperate attempt to cling to the sports star as a complex but coherent symbol of American capitalism. Thus, rather than rehabilitating James’ controversial image, Nike’s latest spot works hard to rehabilitate the very investment in sports stardom itself.


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7 Responses to “ Rehabilitating the Investment in Sports Stardom ”

  1. mabel on November 5, 2010 at 12:02 PM

    It also is an attempt to cling to sports’ (and sports stars’) privileged position in relation to the real. I think it comments equally on James’s status as a star and the nature of (his) star persona as well as constructing a coherent symbol by disavowing that star persona and claiming a real person underneath everything we know about “LeBron James”. Though certainly the direct address does potentially highlight stardom as a forum in which important issues are acted out (and I think the “should i…” questions do much of that work), it also highlights James as a real person, accusing the spectator of treating him as nothing but a star or a star persona that is not the real person.

  2. Anne Helen Petersen on November 5, 2010 at 12:58 PM

    Great post, Lindsay. I think you’re definitely on to something with this idea that athlete’s extra-textual “indiscretions” matter far less than those of movie stars, celebrities, politicians, etc. — if only because the actual text of the star athlete is his/her performance, and that takes up such an enormous proportion of his/her image. Unlike a celebrity whose talent may be slight (or pushed to the back, or non-existant), it’s always very clear that the reason that we’re interested in this person is because of the way he/she performs. (This changes, of course, when the sports star retires, as evidenced by continued interest in the likes of Jordan, Magic Johnson, etc.) Extra-textual information might *add* to our understanding of that star (see Chase Utley and Nadal for a few of my favorites) but, as evidenced by Tiger’s own ability to keep wraps on his personal life leading up to the scandalous revelations, they are tangental.

    As for LeBron, I think the real question isn’t what is legacy is now, but whether or not he’ll be able to work with The Heat to create a new legacy — winning multiple championships in a decided fashion that will render the move from the Cavs a mere footnote that culminated in this “new” legacy. So why is Nike working hard on his image now? Shouldn’t it be more concerned with whether LeBron does well this coming year — as that seems to drive consumption of LeBron-Nike products far more than whether or not we “like” him?

    Or does it? This is real question — I think that most fans would say that their fandom is rooted in a player’s skill, but Kobe and A-Rod seem to be fine examples of players with skill whose extra-textual personalities turn fans away. Is Kobe less valuable as an endorser because he’s kind of an ass? (and an accused rapist?) Does gossip affect athlete fandom?

    I think the answer is yes, but people don’t like to think so. Sports are supposed to be objective, yes? The biggest talents rise to the top, and personality has nothing to do with it. Indeed, that’s why sports are so heavily intertwined with ideologies of the American Dream and capitalism. (One of the reasons I really enjoy Mabel Rosenheck’s work is that she repeatedly invokes the way that star and image function within baseball).

    Finally, will sports stardom ever die? I know that Nike relies on it (because what else sells clothes and shoes?). There’s tremendous anxiety about the death of stardom in Hollywood, but as in sports, I think personalities (e.g star images) are fashioned, though the media, discourse, our own reception, to mean things that matter to us — put differently, the stars make the sport meaningful, just as they make a Hollywood narrative (more) meaningful. Stars don’t die; what we want from them (and how we consume them) simply changes.

    I’m kinda all over the place here, but you’ve given me a lot to think about….and can’t wait to hear more of your thoughts.

  3. Eleanor Seitz on November 5, 2010 at 4:41 PM

    Excellent, insightful post Lindsay! I love your point about the self-reflexive sincerity accomplished by James close-up direct address to the camera. You might disagree, but by posing these questions Lebron seems to be answering them. His questions suggest implicit answers, asking “Should I admit that I’ve made mistakes?” invites viewers to answer this themselves. That he even mentions it answers the question, and diffuses the answer. The intercut scenes minimize the answers to these questions – implying that these questions don’t matter. I am especially fascinated by the villain scene – is he meant to be a bandito? Apologizing is out of the question, because that would him appear weak and/or feminine. I think reinforcing sports stardom is absolutely the goal – and I am curious to know, what do you think is at stake in the pleasure fans get from sports stardom? Is the model of unapologetic, aggressive (black) masculinity necessary? Is it intact in this commercial? I am not sure. I definitely don’t know enough about this subject, and look forward to discussing it more with you. You should come by my office sometime.

  4. Evan Elkins on November 5, 2010 at 5:28 PM

    Great piece. It does seem like there’s a limit to the type of indiscretion that these commercials will address. Lebron participated in a silly and ill-advised but ultimately harmless spectacle, and Tiger had (presumably) consensual sex with several women. In even approaching these issues, each ad suggests that these public embarrassments are ultimately not a big deal.

    But Roethlisberger and Bryant have been accused of rape–something that presumably falls outside the purview of rehabilitation-through-advertising. I find it interesting and dispiriting that there has been considerably more public outrage aimed at Lebron this year than Roethlisberger. But perhaps Ben’s aggressive, hyper-masculine behavior is written off as the norm and quickly swept under the rug, whereas the spectacle of The Decision–what with its seeming celebration of Lebron’s (free) agency–seemed to threaten the NBA’s containment of its star’s image.

  5. Christopher Cwynar on November 6, 2010 at 11:46 AM

    I agree with Annie’s point about the need for LeBron to create a new legacy in Miami. His move, and the somewhat insulting manner in which he turned it into a spectacle, appear to have done significant damage to his stature. In a way, I think that leBron’s situation is perceived as worse in the sports world than those of Tiger and Kobe to an extent because he is perceived to have betrayed his fans and an entire city/state, whereas the transgressions of the other two occurred outside of the sporting realm. I don’t know what it is says about the state of our society that this can be even be posited, but it really seems to me that LeBron has come in for such heavy criticism because he violated the franchise savior prodigy -> maturation struggle -> championship delivery narrative that smaller or less successful franchises and their fans often invest in. When one is in his position, the sports world expects the individual to stay and finish the job (i.e Peyton Manning is an example of this). Now, he needs to write a new story about incredible success with his band of brothers down in Miami. In sports, winning cures everything. A couple of championships and the better part of the sports world will likely forget about the shenanigans of this past off-season.

    Then again, LeBron’s actions will likely never be forgotten in Cleveland. The team was awful before he arrived and he took them back to relevance. This is an achievement for which he should potentially be lauded, but all that people will think about is the fact that he took them only part of the way and left in an undesirable fashion. To wit, check out this video that a Cleveland filmmaker released on 11/4 in response to the Nike commercial:

    It’s all good publicity for Nike, but I wonder if LeBron’s image can ever be fully rehabilitated given that he has abandoned a long-suffering rust belt sports city for some sun n’ fun with his pals. I don’t know that this commercial can really help to rehabilitate LeBron, though the dialogue between the two vids might help those invested in the situation to work through it. It seems to me that the commercial mostly just incorporates the whole LeBron free agency spectacle into Nike’s LeBron narrative. Nike has a huge investment in the fallen King, and thus they must work with this material. For me, the ‘Just Do It’ at the end represents Nike’s hope that LeBron can win enough to work his way of the hole he created this past summer. At the same time, the ‘Quitness’ slogan over the inverted swoosh at the end of the response vid provides a counterpoint indicating that LeBron still hasn’t really accomplished that much and that this might relate to certain personality flaws. If LeBron is be rehabilitated as a star and an anchor commodity, he must win in the right way so as to work his way back into the good graces of sports fans and observers.

  6. Lindsay H. Garrison on November 6, 2010 at 12:49 PM

    Wow, thanks everyone for such great comments.

    Mabel: I think you’re right that it also works to maintain a certain privileging of “the real” in sports stardom, something that Nike’s initial “Witness” campaign with LeBron certainly hinged on. (the meaning of ads/t-shirts/etc. with the swoosh and simply the word ‘witness,’ I guess, drew on one’s both physical and mediated presence for the new legend of basketball and the once-in-a-generation skill of LeBron). But I can’t help but think that, while it certainly cues the viewer in to consider LeBron might be a “real person” in the hype machine with multiple pressures on his image, the *timing* of the ad actually DETRACTS from the “real” of his performance and skills on the court that the season brings by reconstituting questions about his star image rather than his athletic skill. At least it does for me, anyway. I can certainly see how accusing the viewer of seeing LeBron as an image and not a “real” person might also frame the season opener differently. I’d love to hear your thoughts on how this might work in baseball.

    Annie: Absolutely – I’m also fascinated by the fact that extra-textual/private life info about sports figures might *add* to our understanding of that star, but in most cases it is ultimately tangental, unlike other entertainment stars. I really like the point you make that it might be about how their “labor” is constructed/understood differently from actors, musicians, etc. Where being a movie star is glamorous and fun, involved in the “magic” of the movies, professional sports are lots of hard work, training, physical strain, and it involves skills that some of us recognize are difficult – we’ve played basketball or football or baseball or golf, and watching LeBron sink a jumper from across the court or Tiger hit the green with precision is recognized as something we can’t do, where their skill becomes more easily identified as elite because we’ve tried it, maybe? I’ve never acted nor made a movie – the labor or elite skill is much less visible there for an actor or actress? I don’t know. But the perceived “objectivity” and “real”-ness of sports is definitely important, like you and Mabel say. Those that rise to star status in professional sports are supposedly based on an objective performance of skill on the field, “where the best man wins,” right?

    Nora: I certainly agree that his questions imply certain answers (and that’s the point, right, that the answer is ultimately supposed to be “just do it,” just do what you want regardless of what others think about you, which works to re-align and re-commodify LeBron’s star image with that of Nike, consumption, and patriarchal capitalism). But by framing it as a question in the first place where the answers are only implied, I think, also leaves room for that answer to be different for different people. In advertising, most spots are about TELLING you what the brand is, simply and concisely. This ad, while it sets up the answers, at least ASKS the viewer what the brand is about and goes about it in a more rhetorical way that recognizes the precariousness of the process; I suppose that is the difference I was trying to get at. ANd yes, I would totally come by your office more if it weren’t so far away and difficult to get to. 😉

    Evan: I’m glad you brought up the frustration in how LeBron’s “controversy” has received more attention and outrage, at least in mainstream sports outlets, than Big Ben’s rape allegations and reduced suspension. I agree it might just be less antithetical to the white, heteronormative, hypermasculine locker room mentality that surrounds sports like football, and that’s what gets me the most, I guess. Because LeBron’s supposed transgression of the “franchise savior prodigy -> maturation struggle -> championship delivery narrative” that Chris identifies is discursively constructed as a big deal, but is actually much more easily recuperated into a larger narrative of hypermasculinity and capitalism.

    Chris: Thanks so much for posting that vid – Nick and I watched in the office yesterday, and I found it really interesting in how the ad can actually reconstitute the very counter-narrative it’s trying to squash. I’m not sure LeBron can ultimately work his way back in to the “good graces” of sports fans and observers – I think instead of constructing his success as “heroic,” he now has to reorient any championships he wins or records he sets as fun and self-satisfying.

  7. Brad Schauer on November 7, 2010 at 10:06 AM

    Civic identity and the urban/rural binary seem crucial here. In the amateur “rebuttal” video, the Cavaliers are associated with rural Ohio (one of the fans tosses a bale of hay), while James has “taken his talents to South Beach”, with everything that connotes. It’s the trope of the local boy seduced by the bright lights of the shallow, decadent city. Murnau’s SUNRISE, starring LBJ!

    This binary (and the implicit power imbalance) is central to the masochistic pleasure of being the “long-suffering” fan of a smaller-market team. This is a fandom that defines itself against the front-running, “big city” mentality of the Yankees (and now, the Heat). Nike’s success is based on the fostering of front-running, by making their endorsers global brands rather than confining them to their local markets. Nike wants you to abandon your local team and embrace the popular, just as James has done via free-agency (It’s not a coincidence that LeBron is a Yankees rather than an Indians fan.)

    But Nike’s commercial could never be anything other than an utter failure. By leaving Cleveland, James dismantled the narrative that he and Nike had built over many years (LeBron as the “new Jordan”, basically.) Now Nike and James have to reconstruct his career narrative — except there is no blueprint for this. Never before has such a prominent NBA player at the height of his abilities left his first (and hometown!) team without winning a championship. How does James reassert his masculine authority without coming off as unjustifiably combative, petty and vainglorious? How does he do this without sacrificing the playful (if wooden) charm of his star persona?

    I like what Lindsay says about James needing to re-frame his (potential) future success in terms of “fun” rather than “heroism” — but this will be challenging, because the “fun” part of an athlete’s career usually come at the end of a long, heroic run. Plus, if LeBron wins a title (or eight, as he predicted at the Heat rally in July), his success will most likely be closely tied to Dwayne Wade, to a degree that Jordan’s was not to Scottie Pippen (even if Pippen was a better player than Wade).

    Finally, as a media scholar (and, ahem, Milwaukee Bucks fan), it was hard not to feel some schadenfreude when a celebrity with so many publicists and handlers, someone who had fostered his star persona so carefully, made such a deliberate, colossal PR blunder.