LeBron James redux

A couple of days ago, I speculated on why LeBron is so hated by some sports fans.  

I suggested that he’s become a target for our animosity for athletes who sell their talents to the highest bidder.  

Here is James’ answer to the animosity. With the help of Nike, and Wieden and Kennedy, he gives us a brilliant video and asks,

"What should I do?"

Some of the answer he contemplates: admit that he’s made mistakes, give us a history lesson, tell us how much fun we’ve had, and "have my tattoos removed" (image).  

Poignantly, we see James in an empty room for his Hall of Fame induction and he asks, "should I really believe that I’ve ruined my legacy?"  

It’s an effective piece of advertising.  It makes you feel his pain.  At the penultimate moment of the ad, James looks into the camera and you can feel his sincerity.

What’s clever about the spot is that it drives us towards an answer for this question. We end up thinking, "Well, James has the right to do whatever he wants to do. Fans have the right to be unhappy.  But finally, we don’t have the right to say where he plays or finally who he is."

And this means the ad turns, almost inaudibly, on the cry of individualism.  This is one of the bedrock convictions of our culture: that the individual has the right of self-determination, of self definition.  It’s not for elites to tell us who we are.  It’s not for ethnic groups, local communities or corporations.  It’s not for parents.  Nor for teachers.  And it’s not, James is pointing out, for fans. 

We honor this individualism much more in fact than in theory.  But once you see it as a cultural value, you see it everywhere.  Just the other day I found it in Andy Grove’s Only the Paranoid Survive.

Your career is literally your business. You own it as a sole proprietor. You have one employee: yourself. You are in competition with millions of similar businesses: millions of other employees all over the world. You need to accept ownership of your career, your skills and the timing of your moves. It is your responsibility to protect this personal business of yours from harm and to position it to benefit from the changes in the environment. Nobody else can do that for you.

This is a compelling spot because it resorts to one of our foundational ideas.  In the face of this value, we defer.  Yes, we may resent James for having betrayed Cleveland.  But we find this truth to be self-evident: the individual has the right of self determination. 

Does Nike intend this message?  I think they did.  Davide Grasso, the VP of Global Brand Marketing, says the ad is meant to "amplify LeBron’s voice.  We’re celebrating his courage to forge his own journey even when others may have disagreed with his decision.  It’s this Just Do It spirt that defines LeBron and Nike as we strive to inspire all young athletes."

This is the hymn of individualism, note by note. 


See the Rise video here http://bit.ly/cIlbuE

See the Nike Press Release (source of the Grasso quote) here http://counterkicks.com/2010/10/25/nike-lebron-rise-campaign-press-release/

Grove, Andrew S. 1999. Only the Paranoid Survive: How to Exploit the Crisis Points That Challenge Every Company. Crown Business.  Location in Kindle text, 201.


Henri Weijo for remembering the post and sending me the clip.  

15 thoughts on “LeBron James redux

  1. srp

    he ad seems too defensive to me, but time will tell.

    From an image point of view LeBron needs his career to thread a particular needle. He needs to accomplish his goal of winning multiple championships, but he needs to do it with a high degree of difficulty against formidable opponents, failing sometimes (sort of like the San Antonio Spurs who won a few titles but not all in a row). Only that scenario would provide ex post justification for ganging up with the other big kids on the playground to beat up on everyone else. One or zero championships would lead to ridicule while rapid, prolonged supremacy would lead to intensified resentment.

    The balance of rivalry is one reason why past pantheons of starts didn’t provoke the same level of ire. The Celtics needed to accumulate all those Hall of Fame players in the 1980s to match up with the Lakers (and vice versa) and nobody thinks less of Larry Bird because he played with McHale and Parish and Dennis Johnson and the rest. Magic Johnson isn’t dinged because he had Jabbar and Worthy and company on his team. (Of course, these earlier superteam members were also insulated from the ganging-up charge because they didn’t have the kind of free-agent collusive opportunity that the Heat’s Three Amigos just exploited, but that difference just reinforces the Heat’s need to barely succeed in a series of titanic struggles.)

    If the Heat suffer enough on the court but eventually overcome those disappointments, all will eventually be forgiven (outside of Cleveland, at least). And I wouldn’t be shocked this season if Orlando or Boston stops them in the East or they lose a finals to the Lakers, so this scenario may actually play out.

  2. Sailaja

    I think the ad is very telling of the me-centric generation that LeBron is so vividly apart of. The ad is not for a pair of nike shoes, but rather an avenu in which LeBron can validate himself in the public’s eye. The ad is a way for him to say, “Hey wait a minute, i’m right and you are wrong.”

    While I’m still pretty upset w/ LeBron for making the move to the heat, I can’t help but take a step back from my statements above and ask, what’s so wrong with being selfish?

  3. Domen

    Nice ‘contrast’ to the Tiger Woods redux (Ups, Nike again!). With Tiger we had his resurrected father telling him off with a twist of ‘I’m-in-pain’. Here we seem to have a purposely exaggerated self-crucifixion (forgive me father…) with a twist of I’m a self-bettering person too.

  4. Michael

    For me, and for many others I assume, it wasn’t WHAT he did but HOW he did it (NOTE: I am not a Cleveland fan or NBA fan for that matter). As the sting his fans feel starts to wear off i’m starting to hear them and the sports media slowly admit that he does in fact, like all of us, have the right to decide what he wants to do with his life.

    His decision must have been extremely difficult and full of emotion, but instead of showing that human emotion during the process he put himself in a bubble and shut his fans out only to emerge in a “secret location” to announce with very little grace, humility and respect the next chapter of his career.

    I can only imagine how different his fans would think of him if he took just a few seconds of his 1-hour special to speak directly to them with honesty and sincerity and made a heart felt apology to the city of “Cleveland”. Sure, you can argue his doesn’t have to apologize for his decision, but, as in life, it doesn’t mean he shouldn’t.

    This Nike spot falls short for 2 reasons:
    1. it’s too late
    2. smells of “don’t tell me what to do with my life!”

  5. Henri Weijo

    Not sure I completely agree with the “it was a selfish decision” angle here. Bill Simmons published a column where he had collected some reader sound-offs and one in particular struck me:

    “Was that the ultimate Gen Y move? Pick hanging with your friends as a career instead of kicking their butts and laughing with them in the offseason ala Jordan and Sir Charles? Us Gen Xers will never understand.”

  6. mnh

    It’s not that he left or didn’t have the right to leave. It’s the overblown manner in how he did it. Some people blame ESPN for making it an event, or his agents. But ultimately he could’ve said no to all of that, and just signed a contract and gone to Miami. His actions leading up to the announcement are more socially significant than his leaving Cleveland for a new job.

    Of course fans still would’ve been angry, they’re fans. But for a young athlete that had seemingly entered his high profile job and handled it all very well, he now comes off as just another athlete who bought into his own hype. Ultimately nobody will care about what jersey he wears, they really just want him to shut up an play.

  7. Jack

    If the ad was for LeBron James, I might agree with your view. But the ad is for Nike. As was the Tiger Woods ad. The corporation built these two personality brands for the sole purpose of profiting from them. And with their respective actions, the individuals have diminished the value of Nike’s investment. The ads are Nike’s effort to improve the value of these particular assets.
    That’s why I have difficulty with your thesis. The issue isn’t individualism. It’s the use of individualism as a marketing strategy in the service of a corporate brand. And many brands have utilized similar positionings.
    But the “rugged individualism” of the Marlboro Man was an artificial construct meant to reflect the user’s aspirations. LeBron, on the other hand, is a real person. And his form of individualism is not generally considered aspirational. (Perhaps “selfish a-hole” is now a positive character trait for a certain segment of the population. But I believe the Nike brand is broader than that.)
    Your perspective on the new ad relies on the audience willingly overlooking the insincerity of the individualism message, and accepting it as authentic. Clearly, you took it at face value. The negative reviewers are clearly more skeptical. But objectively speaking, can individualism be entirely authentic when LeBron is speaking, not for himself primarily, but as a paid spokesperson for Nike?
    Ironically, the artificial construct of individualism is arguably more persuasive simply because you can’t be disingenuous if you aren’t real to begin with.
    The Marlboro Man, Tiger Woods and LeBron James all had carefully constructed images. The difference is, the Marlboro Man never cheated on his wife or gave the finger to his fans.

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  11. GeneE

    Lebron has a lot to deal with on a daily basis and it should not be for us as fans to decide what he should do, there should be that individualism expressed. That individualism is what makes Lebron who he is and the reason why he is such a good athlete. Lebron understand that he needs to make career moves that will benefit him and in Lebrons opinion Cleveland obviously would not benefit him in the long run. Lebron made a career move that upset a lot of people probably because he has grown up and always been like a super hero to Cleveland and it is understandable that so many fans are upset in Cleveland and across the country. Lebron knows how to be self determinate and if anything we should learn from Lebron about how to self determinate and not do what other people want. Yes Lebron did handle things a little different when he decided to go to Miami. But everyone blew up his decision-making and that was wrong to do. I don’t know what everyone is causing such a fuss over anyway its not like one player should effect a whole team. We saw that with the finals a couple of years ago. One player does not make a team and Lebron did what he had to do for the benefit of himself without caring how everyone else is going to be effected by it.

  12. Joel "Improve Vertical" Jamieson

    Great article, and I would like to add the following:
    Lebron doesn’t really owe many people much. It’s an undeserved sense of entitlement, but I do believe the ad is a bit narcissistic. That’s not exactly Lebron’s fault though. It comes from the marketing people at Nike whose sole purpose is to make profit. So the hate he gets for the ad is unwarranted IMO.
    Just my 2 cents.

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