It's Really About NBA Brand Imaging; Not LeBron


by Dr. Timothy Thompson 08-03-2010 12:44 AM

So much has already been said about LeBron James' dramatic build-up to his announcement that he was leaving behind the city of Cleveland and the state of Ohio as his NBA home.  At this point in the league's annual activities when the games that count directly in the standings aren't being played and the main emphasis is on the business game of running its teams, the NBA's universe is still trying to flip right side up again.

It appears to me that some people are really, really mad at LeBron, while probably many more are at least somewhat annoyed at the way he strung the pro basketball world out before dropping his bomb on the almost desperately hopeful Cleveland Cavaliers fans. For me it's easy to understand why Cavaliers fans would be outraged, and also why folks throughout the U.S. pro basketball world would be annoyed with "King James." After all, he orchestrated what amounted to a media circus that immediately started generating strong criticisms of his decision-making before he'd even made his announcement. So by the time LeBron finally dropped his revelatory bomb about heading to South Beach to join D-Wade and C-Bosh, he was already in a no-win position.

Of course, all of the above is simply my "state-of-the-NBA-nation" report, so here's where I make my official grand entrance into the fray of this hot topic. Specifically, I'm here to propose to all of you that almost no attention whatsoever has been devoted to discussing the real driving force behind the strong statements that Charles Barkley, Michael Jordan and others have made about LeBron.

The invisible driving force that I'm talking about is none other than the NBA's brand image and the extreme lengths to which most members of that exclusive fraternity will go to protect and preserve that image along with the institution's culture. One of the core themes embedded within that image and culture is that the NBA is a league of superstars who are expected to be "model citizens" off the court in addition to being the best of the best among world class athletes on it.

The culturally embedded expectation placed on superstar players to be model citizens is where the trouble begins for LeBron James in his team-changing saga. Consider the examples of what happened to the great Michael Jordan and sharpshooter Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf. The real culprit behind the media image troubles that plagued Jordan (gambling issues) in the early 1990s, and essentially placed Abdul-Rauf's career on life-support (not participating in pre-game national anthem) in the mid-1990s, boils down to one simple question: Who legitimately gets to set the expectations for NBA star players in the more subtle and intangible off-the-court matters that affect consumers' brand perceptions so deeply?

I believe that the league's view on that question is that the right to set brand image expectations for superstars belongs primarily to the team owners and management officials, based largely on marketing feedback provided by NBA fans. In short, traditionally everyone except the players themselves gets to set those expectations and impose them on players as behavioral norms that define the NBA's unique cultural fingerprint. The players are instead expected by everyone to do whatever others want in exchange for their huge paychecks.  Furthermore, the punishment for openly expressing disagreement (in word or deed) with this unwritten, unspoken norm has been character assassination at the very least. In fact, some NBA insiders speculated that Jordan's 1993 retirement was forced by the league, and Abdul-Rauf was suspended indefinitely without pay until he satisfied the league with a statement in early 1996. You certainly wouldn't have to look hard to find a slew of other cases as well in which the NBA punished players for failing to unquestioningly follow the fraternity's cultural norms.

Getting back to LeBron's case, however... Let's put it in perspective. No evidence has yet been presented (or even mentioned) that indicates that he violated any core human behavioral standards, published league policies, or even laws.  What Lebron did violate, however, was the unwritten cultural norm that aims at forbidding players from putting their personal satisfaction ahead of the fans' and league representatives' desires. Furthermore, he and his Team USA buddies D-Wade and C-Bosh achieved an NBA first by leveraging both their individual and collective star status to overpower the tremendous force exerted by the normal cultural expectation associated with staying with and leaving teams.

Since they succeeded in getting together as teammates in Miami, they've now set the stage for players in the future to leverage their player assets to assert themselves in similar ways.  In summary, I believe that what we've witnessed is nothing short of a "battle of the titans" that constitutes the first rumblings of a potential shift in power distribution within professional sports. It kind of reminds me of the phenomenon called jury revolt in courts of law or tenants' revolts in property management disputes. So get ready for more thrilling management-versus-players sagas to come down the road in the sporting world!


Published 08-02-2010 © 2023 Access Athletes, LLC


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