In the high-stakes world of NBA free agency, players coming and going is never simply transactional. Free agency is a source of hope and intrigue for fans and a rite of passage for players who are theoretically liberated to select the team that empowers them to fulfill their goals. It is also a major media spectacle, with each player coming, going, and staying the subject of analysis and scrutiny by journalists and media commentators. With free agency underway again, we ought to reflect upon the legacy of sports media rhetoric surrounding the most impactful free agency in NBA history: that of LeBron James and “The Decision.”
On July 8, 2010, ESPN aired “The Decision” to an audience of nearly 10 million, tuning in to behold the then 25-year-old James announcing he would leave his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers and “take his talents to South Beach,” signing with the Miami Heat. In a content analysis study that surveyed print, web, and broadcast media, I found that sports media backlash to “The Decision” was swift and overwhelmingly negative. It was obvious James’ exertion of agency, compounded by his choice to leave Cleveland to join the more-talented Heat, seriously upset the social order.
Media commentary on sports isn’t just about sports. Though rarely explicit, the mediated messages we consume encourage us to accept particular interpretations of reality over others and extend the values and attitudes they promote into our lives. As the backlash to “The Decision” reminds us, sport media is often the site of disciplinary rhetoric against threats to the status quo.
Since “The Decision” and James’ signing with Miami, sports media practitioners have often promoted an ideology of neoliberalism rationality in framing NBA free agency. In particular, media commentators have advanced a distinctly neoliberal conception of competition to send a sharp warning to players, and also to fans, that collaboration and solidarity have no place in labor.
In his landmark book A Brief History of Neoliberalism, anthropologist David Harvey explains that neoliberalism “proposes that human wellbeing can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterised by strong private property rights, free market, and free trade.” The implementation of governmental and economic neoliberal policies is undergirded by the political-ideological project of neoliberal rationality. Critical scholar Wendy Brown identifies this as the process of “extending and disseminating market values to all institutions and social action.” For individuals, this involves envisioning life and labor through the lens of cutthroat, zero-sum competition. In the neoliberal imagination, prosperity—and, by extension, freedom—can only be obtained through perpetual self-motivated competition to outhustle and subjugate peers, lest they outhustle and subjugate us. Neoliberal rationality tells us that we are solely responsibility for our own successes and failures—that if we work hard and are sufficiently talented, we will be rewarded both financially and socially.
As we watch our sports heroes succeed while journalists and broadcasters reinforce the idea they are the best at what they do because they work harder and “want it more” than everybody else, we are hailed to internalize that we, too, must scratch and claw past our peers lest we, too, become dominated by someone who wants it more. Should we fail to prosper, we are conditioned to internalize that blame rather than question systemic inequities that impede us and others along the way. We are conditioned to blame others for their struggles and to approach any threat to neoliberal rationality as undesirable, weak, and deviant.
Aghast that James would opt to improve his working conditions by joining fellow all-stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, media critics appealed to neoliberal rationality by framing James’ embrace of collaboration as a gesture of weakness and an abdication of greatness. CBS Sports’s Ken Berger, for example, accused James of criminal collusion with Wade and Bosh. New York Times columnist Maureen Daud feminized James, likening Miami’s all-star trio to women who must go to the bathroom together, while also appealing to rhetoric of criminality by likening the trio to a cartel. Journalists at ESPN.com appealed to negative stereotypes of millennials as entitled and unwilling to work hard or acknowledge (neoliberal) reality. “James is the perfect case study of the I’m-Somebody-And-You’re-Not phenomenon,” ESPN’s Tim Keown wrote. “They’ve grown up in a world of parents who worship them rather than discipline them, and they’ve rarely been given honest, frank assessments of their talents. Everybody is good at everything, nobody loses, nobody fails, nobody should be called to account for their inadequacies.” “James represents oversensitive players who can’t take criticism or fans not pulling for them,” Rob Parker wrote. “Some of the greatest players both expected it and relished the fans of their opponents to despise them. Everybody isn’t going to root for you. Just ask Jordan.”
The “Jordan” to whom Parker refers is, of course, Michael Jordan, the icon to whom James was compared since he entered the NBA as a teenager. Jordan’s evocation in this equation is no accident, as Jordan has long been a quintessential Reagan-era hard body, “inextricably articulated as a living, breathing, and dunking vindication of the mythological American meritocracy,” to quote sports scholar David Andrews. The reality-distorting legend of Jordan being cut from his high school team, only to use that failure as fuel to work harder than everybody else, is a quintessential neoliberal mythology: if we fail, the fable tells us, only working harder can transcend failure.
This decade-spanning campaign of commentary on NBA free agency extends and perpetuates itself when star players such as Anthony Davis, Paul George, Kyrie Irving, or James Harden are traded to teams with fellow stars. Like clockwork, when a high-watt NBA star joins a talented team, or aligns with an all-star teammate via trade, he will be chastised for taking the “easy way out,” for shrinking from their potential, for lacking the desire to win that Jordan and his contemporaries possessed. “Any super-competitive person would rather beat Dwyane Wade than play with him,” Bill Simmons wrote for ESPN. “Don’t you want to find the [Muhammad] Ali to your [Joe] Frazier and have that rival pull the greatness out of you? . . . That’s what Jordan would have done.”
Why is the prospect of NBA players asserting agency over where and with whom they play so disruptive, not merely to the NBA but to the social order itself? Interestingly, this disciplinary rhetoric about “The Decision” coincided with an influx of millennials into the workforce. Framing James, and later contemporaries like Kevin Durant, as weak-minded and lazy provides an unambiguous message to not only players whose legacies might also be denigrated but to anybody listening: competition, not collaboration, is the only acceptable path to self-actualization. And thus, neoliberal rationality may extend beyond the basketball court and into our own relations.
Dr. Matt Foy is an associate professor of communication at Upper Iowa University, where he conducts research on popular culture at the intersections of performance, cultural, and rhetorical studies. He is the chief journal editor of the Professional Wrestling Studies Journal. This post is adapted from the author’s 2020 article “The Neoliberal Disciplining of LeBron James and Kevin Durant: Sports Media Discourse on NBA Free Agency as Ideological Critique,” published by the Journal of Sport and Social Issues.