More Than a Game: Fulfilling Expectations and Inscriptions in the Career of LeBron James

By Fourney, Sean; Brown, Timothy | The Western Journal of Black Studies, Fall-Winter 2018 | Go to article overview

More Than a Game: Fulfilling Expectations and Inscriptions in the Career of LeBron James


Fourney, Sean, Brown, Timothy, The Western Journal of Black Studies


Introduction

"Play the game, but don't believe in it--that much you owe yourself...Play the game, but raise the ante, my boy. Learn how it operates, learn how you operate" (Ellison, 1952, p. 153-154).

Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man captures the enduring struggle of black men to avow identity in a society that stipulates strict expectations for them. Ellison's work is a powerful reminder that the political, cultural, and social challenges that black men face have changed very little in American society. Black men continue to be measured by long-standing stereotypes and negative images (Jackson, 2006; Neal, 2013). These inscriptions include challenges of their intellect and suspicions of their motives and actions for simply being (Coates, 2015; Neal, 2013). This ongoing struggle for identity, however, might best be understood through the perspective of black men who have emerged in society to occupy a high profile position. For many black men, sports become a battle ground of not only athletic skill but identity. This is especially true for NBA megastar and three-time champion, LeBron James, who offers a unique look into race, sports, and the dichotomous Historically, the media have scripted black bodies, and, more specifically, black athletes, in very limiting and polarizing ways, specifically through the Good/Bad Negro Paradigm (Boyd, 1997). Such a paradigm perpetuates a false dichotomy of categorizing the "Good" black athlete as nonthreatening, assimilative, and controllable, and the "Bad" black athlete as untrustworthy, threatening, and uncontrollable. An analysis of LeBron James' career provides a unique perspective on the rapid process of scripting that black athletes undergo when constantly held to others' standards. While Griffin and Philips (2014) situate "The Decision" as a challenge to Whiteness, we believe the theoretical perspective of scripting when applied to the career of James provides a grander insight of hegemony and the power dynamics between white judgment and black athletic superstars in the 21st century. Rarely are black men constructed and reconstructed for public consumption within one lifetime, yet the transformation of James from good-bad-good occurs so quickly that a deeper investigation and understanding is warranted. It is the uniqueness of James being scripted in three different ways (good-bad-good) within one career that makes him the focus of this essay. Analyzing how James is scripted for public consumption provides insight into how black athletes are constructed to shape public opinion

Thus, this study undertakes a rhetorical analysis of LeBron James' career to illustrate the ideological power of scripting. The inscription of the Good/Bad Negro Paradigm upon James highlights that identities ascribed to black men continue to be narrow and controlling. LeBron's journey through these polarizing scripts is contextualized with other prominent black athletes to illustrate how black athletes are constructed for public consumption. In contrast to other black athletes whose shift to a "good" characterization took a lifetime to achieve, James' scripting takes place within a few years, which magnifies the hegemonic power of mediated discourse in constructing racial identities in sport.

Background: The Chosen One

A native of Akron, Ohio, it seemed like fate when the moribund Cleveland Cavaliers won the NBA Draft Lottery and selected James number one overall in 2003. From the very beginning, their relationship felt more like a blood pact than a contract. For the city of Cleveland--whose last moment of sports glory was the Browns' NFL Championship in 1964--James represented a destiny that had finally arrived to the economically and athletically depressed town. While only still a teen, James had led his St. Vincent-St. Mary prep school teams to multiple state titles, Pay-Per-View telecasts, and a likeness on Sports Illustrated as "The Chosen One" (Wahl, 2002). James was the local hero who brought the Cavs the "most ballyhooed and publicized athlete in the history of high-school sports" (Johnson, 2012, para 4). …

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