WNBA player Nneka Ogwumike stands on a basketball count holding a basketball while wearing a purple Los Angeles Sparks shirt
With much of her team stranded overnight in an airport, Nneka Ogwumike of the Los Angeles Sparks issued a statement calling for a resolution to the WNBA’s ongoing travel issues. (photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images North America/Getty Images via CNN)

Nneka Ogwumike, President of the Women’s National Basketball Players Association, released a statement on August 8 asking for a resolution to the league’s ongoing travel issues. The seven-time league All-Star wrote the statement at 4 a.m. in an airport terminal.

Following a 79-76 win over the Washington Mystics the previous evening, Ogwumike and her teammates had arrived at the airport, learning at 1 a.m. that their flight back home had been rescheduled to 9 a.m. the next morning. Local hotels had limited capacity and could only accommodate about half of the team, leaving the other half stranded at the airport.

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A man on a skateboard performs a trick on a cement wall. A cellular phone on a tripod is pictured in the foregroud.
While professional skateboarders may seem to have a “cool” job, their employment is often precarious. Skaters rely heavily on social media to build a personal “brand” and secure the sponsorship of companies in the skateboard industry (skateboarder Andras Alexander pictured; photo by Dane Haman).

Tracing its origins back to 1960s California, skateboarding represents both a popular “lifestyle sport,” and an irreverent subculture that exists in a space between mainstream notoriety and obscurity. Highlighting its progression into the “mainstream,” the International Olympic Committee included skateboarding events for the first time in the delayed 2020 Summer Games. Today, people of all class backgrounds, age ranges, genders, and racial identities enjoy rolling around and performing tricks, such as kickflips, 5-0 grinds, and melon grabs, on nearly any architectural feature that is accessible, including sidewalks, streets, stairs, concrete ledges, rooftops, warehouses, and parking lots.

Further demonstrating the growth of skateboarding, a $2 billion industry supports the lifestyle sport, producing apparel, equipment, and media. Skateboard companies from Alien Workshop to Zero Skateboards sponsor talented riders at the professional and amateur level. Acting as ambassadors for their brands, these riders comprise a promotional “team.” They wear clothing emblazoned with logos, appear in advertisements, try to gain exposure, and compile clips for skate videos. In many cases, skateboard companies release videos of their riders performing impressive tricks as a form of advertising. Existing alongside these actors is an ecosystem of legacy and digital media that likewise promotes companies and their riders, such as the physical Thrasher Magazine, and the Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube accounts of The Berrics, which have millions of followers. Foregrounding the money and business behind skateboarding is important, because it allows us to see pro skaters as workers who perform athletic labor; as I explain below, part of their job is to promote and brand themselves on social-media platforms. Upon further investigation, we find that these alternative athletes face precarious employment, as well as an industry that discourages discussion about their working conditions.

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Lebron James, wearing a Miami Heat uniform, dribbles a basketball past a defender
In a 2010 ESPN television special known as “The Decision,” LeBron James announced that he would be signing with the Miami Heat. (photo by Mark Runyon, licensed with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

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.”

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Tennis star Naomi Osaka, wearing a red hat, black tank top, and black shorts, hits a tennis ball with a forehand swing.
Naomi Osaka withdrew from the 2021 French Open after winning her first round match (photo by Peter Menzel CC BY-SA 2.0)

Tennis star Naomi Osaka declared she would not participate in press conferences prior to the 2021 French Open. Reactions to her refusal were filled with anger and criticism. In a deleted tweet, Roland Garros posted images of athletes doing press work with the text, “They understood the assignment.” Early reporting provided lip-service to Osaka’s concern for her own mental health while emphasizing other players, such Rafael Nadal, disagreed with her. Similarly, tennis icon Billie Jean King criticized Osaka for avoiding media since the press helps build the sport. Others characterized her as a self-centered, childish millennial unwilling to sacrifice like other athletes. And after assessing a $15,000 fine for not meeting contractual media obligations, she was further threatened with suspension from other major tournaments.

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