May 26, 2011
Ever since LeBron James(notes) entered the NBA in 2003, he's stuck out as a player with an impressive -- some would say improper -- sense of his own personal brand and legacy. Nike has been his major partner in building that image, whether in ad campaigns or by supporting his decisions in every way possible.
Still, most people would not expect Nike to police commentators who criticize LeBron for some of his worst decisions, like, oh, "The Decision." But that's apparently what it did with Charles Barkley. From Barry Jackson in the Miami Herald (via PBT):
About his comments tweaking the Heat, Barkley said: "I don't know if Dwyane's upset with me, but I don't sit around and worry about it." He said LeBron James hasn't said anything to him. "These athletes today are all wussified," Barkley said. "I've been saying LeBron's been the best player in the league for three years. And I say one thing criticizing The Decision, and I get a phone call from Nike saying why don't I like LeBron? It's interesting how this [expletive] works. These groups today, if you don't say 100 percent positive about their guy or their team, they overreact."
It's a little ridiculous to criticize a pundit famous for his controversial statements for not being totally on board with a display of arrogance like "The Decision." LeBron was hit hard in the wake of that event, and for Nike to single out Barkley for his comments seems bizarre.
On the other hand, it's easy to see why Nike would want to protect the reputation of James considering how much money they stand to gain from his popularity. When Barkley speaks, people pay attention, and it's worth doing everything possible to get in his good graces. LeBron isn't just a basketball player for Nike; he's a major part of its business, too.
Plus, Nike helped create Chuck's brand as a no-nonsense guy with ads like the famous "I am not a role model" spot. Criticizing LeBron may appear to Nike like the act of someone who doesn't appreciate everything the company has done for him over the years. And while it's weird for Nike to get upset over a former endorser exercising the personality that it helped cultivate and popularize, it's somewhat understandable. When money's involved, people don't always act rationally.