Lebron Should Be More Careful With His Image

Jemele Hill, ESPN, March 20, 2008

Jemele
 Jemele Hill. 

If you’ve ever seen photos of LeBron James away from the basketball court, it’s obvious he takes great pride in his appearance.

In fact, he’s widely considered one of the best-dressed guys in the NBA—perhaps even in all of sports. LeBron’s mentor is Jay-Z, the rapper-turned-mogul who dropped throwbacks for Armani suits years ago.

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LeBron’s image clearly means a lot to him, maybe even as much as pursuing a championship. And that’s why I can’t understand why he would allow Vogue to feature him with supermodel Gisele Bundchen in such a distasteful manner.

In case you haven’t seen the cover, LeBron has Gisele in one hand and a basketball in the other. LeBron is dressed in basketball gear, with his muscles flexing, tattoos showing and bared teeth. Gisele, on the other hand, is wearing a gorgeous slim-fitting dress, and smiling.

{snip} Vogue’s quest to highlight the differences between superstar athletes and supermodels only successfully reinforces the animalistic stereotypes frequently associated with black athletes.

A black athlete being reduced to a savage is, sadly, nothing new. But this cover gave you the double-bonus of having LeBron and Gisele strike poses that others in the blogosphere have noted draw a striking resemblance to the racially charged image of King Kong enveloping his very fair-skinned lady love interest.

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Too often, black athletes are presented as angry, overly aggressive and overly sexual. Or sometimes, they’re just plain emasculated.

The examples of this are endless. The 2002 Sports Illustrated cover that featured Charles Barkley chained like a slave. Ricky Williams wearing a wedding dress on an ESPN The Magazine cover in 1999. And while it didn’t appear in a magazine, the Terrell Owens-Nicolette Sheridan intimate-encounter tease for “Monday Night Football” gave viewers a sexualized image of a black man.

In fact, the shirtless black male athlete cover is pretty much a staple, reinforcing the idea that black athletes were blessed with physical characteristics, not mental ones.

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Having studied the images of black athletes for years, Hoberman [John Hoberman, a University of Texas professor and author of the controversial book “Darwin’s Athletes: How Sports Has Damaged Black America and Preserved the Myth of Race.”] contends that the images of black athletes presented today are no better than the ones offered centuries ago. And if it matters to you, Hoberman is white.

“One of the 19th-century themes was the savage versus the civilized,” Hoberman said. “The practice of stripping black males above the waist and displaying him is as American as apple pie.”

But we don’t even have to dip back to the 19th century to see how images of black athletes have affected how we think and thus how we view sports. In 1994, Jack Nicklaus said there weren’t more African-Americans in golf because “blacks have different muscles that react in different ways.”

And that backward thinking isn’t limited to whites, either. Former ESPN NFL analyst Michael Irvin channeled his inner Jimmy the Greek when attempting to explain Tony Romo’s abilities. Irvin surmised that Romo was good because his “great, great, great, great grandma pulled one of them studs up outta the barn [and said], ‘Come here for a second.’”

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Vogue deserves criticism, but more blame should go to LeBron and other black athletes, who need to exercise stricter control of their images. If LeBron is brave enough to wear a Yankees cap at an Indians playoff game, picking up a history book and educating himself shouldn’t cause a strain.

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LeBron

Left: LeBron James and Gisele Bundchen on the cover of Vogue.

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