Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Spectacular Evisceration of Lebron James

As Lebron James prepares to return to his former team for the first time following taking his talents to South Beach, he finds himself in uncharted territory, as one of the most hated figures in professional sports.

Lebron’s image has taken a decidedly steep descent since his hour-long television special announcing his free-agency decision.

While there are many theories as to the turn his image has taken, mine involves using Guy Debord’s notion of spectacle as a theoretical lens to deconstruct Lebron’s relationship with sports fans.

Debord describes spectacle as: “The illusory paradise that represented a total denial of earthly life is no longer projected into the heavens, it is embedded in earthly life itself.” (Thesis 20) and “The real world is replaced by a selection of images which are projected above it, yet which at the same time succeed in making themselves regarded as the epitome of reality.” (Thesis 36)

Lebron James was raised by spectacle, his High School games were featured on ESPN, and his market profile resulted in a $90 million contract from Nike before he began his NBA career. The spectacle crowned him King James, anointing him as the next great sporting icon, and proclaiming the rest of us as ‘witnesses’ to his ascent to the throne.

Lebron James was also raised on spectacle, he belongs to the portion of the population Debord referred to when he wrote: “The spectacle’s domination has succeeded in raising a whole generation moulded to its laws. The extraordinary new conditions in which the entire generation has effectively lived constitute a precise and comprehensive summary of all that, henceforth, the spectacle will forbid; and also what it will permit.” (Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, 7). Having been surrounded by media for most of his life as most North Americans typically are, he is immersed in the “world view that has been materialized… view of the world that has become objective” (Thesis 5) constructed by the spectacle.

Lebron’s athletic gifts were highlighted within the spectacle, which also attempted to construct a narrative around his life that was similar to that of archetypal superstar athletes. The story of a humble boy from a humble background playing for his hometown team was a powerful interpellative force that aligned Lebron with many of the great athletes considered superstars before him. Debord wrote: “The spectacle presents itself as a vast inaccessible reality that can never be questioned. It’s sole message is: ‘what appears is good, what is good appears.’” (Thesis 12). If Lebron is constructed within the spectacle as the next coming of Michael Jordan, then who is the audience to question the logic of the spectacle?

The spectacle built Lebron, and he was more than willing to use it to further his image. His televised free-agency decision, along with its two-hour pre and four-hour post analysis, attracted millions of viewers. And as he joined the two other top free agents to form a Gold-medal adorned triple-threat in Miami, dancing on stage and laying claim to the next 6-7 NBA championship trophies, the professional sporting spectacle seemed poised to rise to previously unforeseen heights.

Debord wrote: “The spectacle is the stage at which the commodity has succeeded in totally colonizing social life. Commodification is not only visible, we no longer see anything else; the world we see is the world of commodity.” As a free agent, Lebron was the most sought after commodity in the NBA, and the decision special was the ultimate spectacle, celebrating his commodification alongside millions of viewers with a seemingly vested interest.

And now things aren’t things aren’t working out as planned, and as he returns to play his hometown (kind of ) and original team, with his new team floundering around .500, Lebron finds himself fighting against the reverse tide of the spectacle, as it uses it’s logic to further and further distance itself from the disappointment it ultimately set up. Debord wrote: “Since no one may contradict it, it has the right to contradict itself, to correct its own past.” (Comments… 28)
Spectacle is the promise that is never delivered, a constructed worldview based in images that appears superior to reality, but which in reality is a worldview that can never be attained. The spectacle may consider Lebron king, but in sports the crown is earned, and that truth is undeniable, even within the parameters the spectacle creates.

While undeniably supremely gifted as a basketball player, Lebron’s career has not had the same trajectory as the peers the spectacle places him among. He simply has not achieved the levels of success requisite to be placed alongside the legends of sport. Yet the spectacle places him among them nonetheless, and this stature is one Lebron wholeheartedly endorses.

But Lebron’s lack of success, for whatever reason, failed to live up to his construction within the spectacle. This caused ambiguity within the spectacle that was quickly subverted through the free agency extravaganza of 2010. The free-agency decision was fascinating because the superstar was choosing where he was going to build his legend, deciding where he would finally affirm his position among the greats of sport. Debord wrote: The society of the spectacle (is) where the commodity contemplates itself in a world of its’ own making. “ (Thesis 53) The spectacle was using it’s own logic to propel itself forward…

But then Lebron forgot he is not the entire spectacle himself, merely a component of it. By choosing the Miami HEAT in free agency, he opposed the entire narrative the spectacle had constructed for him. He left his hometown team, who had contested the spectacle themselves within negotiation, attempting to use the constructed narrative to convince him to remain. When he did leave, he did so in a callous manor (on a TV special), spurning not only his home team and its’ narrative, but also teams in New York and Chicago where the media presence would have only increased his profile within the spectacle. Miami as an NBA destination offered little spectacular appeal outside of the notion of the ‘big three’ that had come through free agency. As well, the HEAT are a team with a firmly entrenched superstar in Dwayne Wade, one who has already achieved more success than Lebron by winning an NBA Championship. In joining another established star, on his team, Lebron ignored an essential component of the archetypal superstar, that they achieve their status as a result of individual achievement along with their team. By going to Miami Lebron abdicated his role as king of spectacle, choosing to share the throne.

Heavy is head that carries the crown, but the spectacle offers no space for understanding outside its' own priority . Debord wrote: “With the most scientific assurance, the spectacle can identify the only place where disinformation could be found, in anything which can be said that might displease it.” (Comments, 47) His desire to play with friends in a less competitive environment was another step in opposition to the archetypal alignment the spectacle provided him with.
As the losses mount, the worldview constructed by the spectacle around Lebron is dissolving. Lebron cannot live up to the unreasonable expectations set out for him by the spectacle as the archetypal superstar athlete, he cannot carry a team to multiple championships in the way the spectacle constructed Michael as having done (despite the talent of his Bulls teams), and as a result the logic of the spectacle has turned on him.

The spectacle used to be about building him up, but now he is a living, breathing metaphor for the death of the spectacle. Ultimately the world of images presented by the spectacle is false, and cannot live up to itself. Regardless of his teammates, Lebron would have had his work set out for him achieving the level of Michael, inside or outside the spectacle, his actions and claims surrounding his free-agency decision were done for the benefit of the spectacle, but now reality has set in and its not as easy as his role in the spectacular narrative as the King of basketball may have liked it to be.

Now that he is not working in favour of the spectacle, it is working to marginalize and deligitimize him. Coverage that was previously favourable or sympathetic is quickly becoming vitriolic. The audience of the spectacle is disappointed and angry that the spectacle has let them down yet again, but because they are captured within its logic the spectacle is allowed to scapegoat Lebron as though it his fault he cannot live up to the worldview it constructed. Debord wrote: “The spectacles instruction and the spectators’ ignorance are wrongly seen as antagonistic factors when in fact they gave birth to each other.” (Comments… 28)

The logic of the spectacle has reversed, and now his every move within it pushes him further away from his previous role as king, so when he asks in his newest commercial “Who do you want me to be?”, he continues to abdicate his throne. The spectacle tells the audience, it does not ask.

The spectacle will find another king, and Lebron will continue to be the scapegoat for its’ perpetual failure.

But there is hope for Lebron, after the spectacle has completely eviscerated him, he has the opportunity for resurection if he can recreate the magic that made him the subject of spectacle in the first place. Debord wrote: “The spectacle is the material reconstruction of the religious illusion.” (Thesis 20)

The comeback archetype is also extremely powerful in both sports and spectacle, ask Mike Vick…

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