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By David J. Leonard

Sunday, April 17, 2011.

Before the initial episode of LeBron James’ new web show – The LeBrons – begins viewers get a clear glimpse of the show’s purpose: advertizing. However, it isn’t the typical web commercial but one that has a character from the show – Biz LeBron – using the newest HP tablet from to coordinate his fashion style. The efforts to blur the line between commercials and the show itself are revealing. This would of course not be the only instance of product placement. Within this short almost seven minute web show, NIKE, whose commercial, The LeBrons , is the basis for the show, is visible, as are Dr. Dres’ Beat headphones, interesting given that the show is suppose to be about LeBron’s childhood.

More centrally, the show is selling LeBron, a “brand” that has certainly faced criticism in recent months. By focusing on a young man growing up in Akron, the show not only tries to reestablish his roots in Ohio, but to humanize LeBron by highlighting his background, where he came from and the trials and tribulations he faced growing up before stardom. This is made clear in the show’s catchy opening theme song :

You see the lights, the fame, you see the bling, but you should meet LeBron before he came king. Yeah, this is a story kind like then; my little homie kid growing up in Akron, trying to be an athlete. W e can all witness, hoping he can grow up right, handle business. Gotta show love to his friends and fam, world on his back, like an old man. ‘cause if you think he’s just a ball player, you got it wrong, player. For real. Life isn’t fun and games. Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, LeBron James. It ain’t easy . . . .

Promising viewers a behind-the-scenes narrative of a less than glamorous childhood, The LeBrons works to reconstruct LeBron – through Kid LeBron – as a normal, average, kid working hard to live the American Dream. While imagining LeBron as 4 distinct personalities, the primary vehicle for moral lessons and engagement is Kid LeBron.

Yet, the show isn’t a crass infomercial for LeBron and his corporate sponsors. It is a commercial with a narrative and a lot of moral lessons (isn’t this true of all commercial popular culture). The initial show – “ The Lion ” – in fact begins with James asking viewers (with a nod to Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids), “Ever heard the saying two wrongs don’t make a right.” Providing pedagogical context for both the episode and the show itself, we initially meet Kid LeBron and his neighborhood friend as they ride their bikes, only to be chased by a vicious pit bull owned by Ray Johnson.

Terrorized and fearful of this blood thirty dog, the kids enlist the help from Biz LeBron. Athlete LeBron who is seen shooting baskets cannot be bothered to protect the boys because he is too focused on perfecting his game. Biz, describing the dog as a “gangsta,” a “punk” and a “thug,” leaving me to wonder if this dog represents not a Cleveland Cavaliers ticket holder as one blogger postulated, but a criminal element threatening an otherwise tranquil community. The use of racialized and racializing terms are revealing in this instance. To describe a dog as “thug” and a “gansta” plays on accepted racial language of black criminality. It reflects a process that not only contributes to “black social death” but “is characterized by the seemingly instantaneous social alienation of a delineated category of racially pathologized people” (D. Rodriguez, 2007, p. 134, from “The meaning of ‘disaster’ under the dominance of white life” in What lies beneath: Katrina, race, and the state of the nation ).

To combat the gangsta/thug threat, Biz gets a lion from the pet store to protect Kid and the other innocence within the community. Lion confronts the dog (we see the Lion in what appears to be an interrogation room), protecting the kids from future harm. Yet, Kid expresses discomfort upon learning from Wise LeBron that Lion (a natural predator) will likely kill the dog. He and his friend wonder if this is just as wrong as the dog inflicting violence on the kids in the neighborhood: “two wrongs don’t make a right.” Whether a message about gang violence, war, or a jab at Dan Gilbert (the Cavs owner who infamously publicly denounced LeBron for “taking his talents to South Beach”), it forms the crux of the moral message in the show about turning the other cheek and doing what is right irrespective of the behavior of others. Sandwiched in between advertizing, it encompasses the purported agenda behind the show: “to show youths of all ages how to be a good person.”

More subtlety, The LeBrons, with its deployment of 4 distinct identities – Wise LeBron, Kid LeBron, Biz LeBron, and Athlete LeBron – attempts to challenge the hegemonic process that reduces and flattens black identity. In introducing the show, LeBron notes “It goes back to the four characters who I feel like I am on a day-to-day basis.” It represents LeBron as encompassing multiple identities in an attempt to elucidate the diversity of blackness and challenge what constitutes an authentic black identity. Greg Tate encapsulates the context here:

Perhaps the supreme irony of black American existence is how broadly black people debate the question of cultural identity among themselves while getting branded as a cultural monolith by those who would deny us the complexity and complexion of a community, let alone a nation. If Afro-Americans have never settled for the racist reductions imposed upon them – from chattel slaves to cinematic stereotype to sociological myth – it’s because the black collective conscious not only knew better but also knew more than enough ethnic diversity to subsume these fictions” (Quoted in R.D.G. Kelley, “Looking for the ‘real’ nigga: Social scientists construct the ghetto,” 2005, p. 119).

At a certain level, the representations available stand in dialog with a hegemonic paradigm of racial authenticity, which as argued by John L. Jackson in Real Black: Adventures in Racial Sincerity functions as a “restrictive script” that “limit[s]” an “individual’s social options” (2005, p. 13). At another level, the narrative choice to construct LeBron as four distinct identities constitutes a certain level of fragmentation, whereupon individual identities are compartmentalized and treated in isolation. Imagining Athlete LeBron apart from Biz and Wise LeBron reifies hegemonic stereotypes about blackness by maintaining the binary between intelligence and athleticism. More importantly, it undermines his own humanity by erasing his complexity and assigning individual identities to individual bodies.

Like Nike’s commercial, the 2011 web show is hyper commercial. Like its predecessor, it gives viewers a lot to think about in terms of black identity, commodified and otherwise. “The Nike series shows the LeBrons in a characteristically “black” behavior from signifying stories, or ‘baldheaded lies’ as they’re called, at the dinner table, to macking in the mirror, to dancing to Rick James’s “Superfreak,” including the requisite performance of the robot by the older LeBron brother,” writes Lisa Guerrero from Leonard and King’s Criminalized and Commodified . “It represents LeBron as not only “hardwood maestro”; he’s also funny, entertaining, and can dance well; the unstated implication being, ‘just like all black people.’” Yet, “He remains ‘safe’ because he exists in an immovable racialized space created by the public and the market culture that manages racial panics by locating blackness in confined performative geographies like athletics and entertainment, in other words, in a world of blackness that is understandable because it is the one that exists in the national imagination.”

While challenging hegemonic ideas, LeBron, as child, as moral, as just an average kid, reifies dominant ideas about a pathological underclass as well. He is imagined as the same – like many idealized white suburban kids, he once played in the neighborhood, dreamed of a better life, and worked hard as he in spite of moral challenges to make it. Yet, he is also different from both a white normative ideal, as a fragmented, hyper-black body, and the pathological black other, represented by the pit bull.

The Lebrons thus highlights how new media technologies provide modern black athletes (among others) tools to define their own image and message, partially apart from those “restrictive script” yet bound by the dominant discourse and accepted images. In the coming episodes it will be interesting to see how the show further deals with the complexities and dialects that exist between those restrictive stereotypes and the freedom afforded by this space.


With thanks to New Black Man.

David J. Leonard is an associate professor in the Department of Comparative Ethnic Studies at Washington State University at Pullman. His next book (SUNY Press) is on the NBA after the November 2004 brawl during a Pacers-Pistons game at the The Palace of Auburn Hills He has written on sport, video games, film, and social movements, appearing in both popular and academic mediums.

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