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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Basketball player Kobe Bryant holds a basketball at waist level while preparing to shoot a free throw.
Kobe Bryant, along with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna “Gigi” Bryant and seven others, died in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26, 2020 (photo via Nu Origins)

While basketball fans rejoice at the start of the 2020-21 playoffs, I am eerily reminded that it will mark the culmination of the first full NBA season since the untimely death of one of the league’s greatest stars—Kobe Bryant. On the foggy morning of January 26, 2020 in Calabasas, California, a tragic helicopter crash claimed the lives of Bryant, along with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna “Gigi” Bryant, and seven others. The stunning news consumed the sporting world and left many people reeling for solace, mourning in disbelief. Many fans like me, who grew up watching Kobe, still experience trouble accepting his sudden ascension.

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A basketball sits on a basketball court while players warm up in the background.
When sleep is viewed as a performance-enhancing strategy, the work of being an athlete never stops. Recovery becomes a sphere of performance in which athletes are closely monitored and expected to excel. (photo via Sports Illustrated)

Issues related to athlete welfare are impossible to ignore as the National Basketball Association (NBA) leaves the “bubble” behind and begins the 2020-21 regular season on December 22. As play resumes, sleep and athlete recovery will be a major area of media attention and discussion within the league.

It is no secret that NBA players are routinely exposed to poor sleep, jetlag, and overtraining. Teams play 82 games in a 6-month period and travel an average of 40,000 miles a season. Commissioner Adam Silver called rest a “significant issue,” and Michelle Roberts, Executive Director of the NBA Players Association, predicts that sleep will be an issue in future collective bargaining. Just last week, the NBA updated its rest policy, specifying that teams may face fines of $100,000 if they decide to sit out healthy players in nationally-televised games.

Given this context, promoting sleep may seem like an easy way to safeguard players’ wellbeing. But the rise of a “sleep-friendly” NBA shows that fostering athlete welfare is more complex than it may first appear.

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A group of women and men, members of the Washington Mystics, stand on a basketball court wearing white t-shirts that spell out the name Jacob Blake
Members of the WNBA’s Washington Mystics protest the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man shot in the back seven times by an officer in Kenosha, WI. (photo from CNN)

Sport sociologists like Harry Edwards have long fought against the notion that sports and politics can be kept separate, battling back against assaults by people like Fox News’ Laura Ingraham, who in February 2018 told NBA star LeBron James to “shut up and dribble.” In the midst of the NBA and WNBA finals, and at a time of intense political polarization, basketball fans ought to be aware of the stakes that exist for Black athletes and listen to their voices. How else can you as a fan ethically focus on the games if many of your favorite players say that they themselves cannot? In this brief essay, we offer some considerations for basketball fans today, building upon the work of many sports sociologists who have come before us.

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NBA Player Delonte West
Former NBA player Delonte West’s mental health was a prominent topic in media coverage of his career (photo via Slam).

Professional athletes in the United States and Canada are increasingly discussing their personal struggles with mental health on commercial media outlets. Notably, National Basketball Association (NBA) star Kevin Love has received praise for his “courageous fight” to combat the stigmatization of mental illness in sports. In a March 2018 essay for The Players’ Tribune, Love detailed his bouts with panic attacks during the NBA season, writing, “Mental health isn’t just an athlete thing. What you do for a living doesn’t have to define who you are. This is an everyone thing.” As a successful athlete, Love has accrued lucrative endorsement deals with Banana Republic and the Built with Chocolate Milk campaign. Following the public stories of other NBA players like Channing Frye and DeMar DeRozan, national media outlets framed Love’s essay as a “courageous decision to speak candidly on mental health.”

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Kevin Durant faced criticism for his lack of “loyalty” when he decided to leave the Oklahoma City Thunder and join the Golden State Warriors prior to the 2016-17 NBA season. (Photo from

All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.
– Karl Marx, The Manifesto of the Communist Party

Last year, Reggie Miller criticized Kevin Durant’s decision to join the Golden State Warriors in order to win a championship. While many others made similar critiques, I find that Miller reveals a broader issue in professional sports. Miller expresses this point through the article’s title, “Kevin Durant Traded a Sacred Legacy for Cheap Jewelry.” Framing his critique through the sacred (legacy) and the profane (cheap jewelry) reveals what I see as two inter-twined, mutually-dependent yet contradictory elements that structure professional sports.

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