All the King’s Men

Burfeind fig1

In November 2005 as part of their “We Are All Witnesses” campaign, Nike created an advertisement that featured Lebron James (figure 1). The ad was first released as on a billboard across from Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio, where James formally played. The billboard features many signs, most importantly Lebron James sporting his Cleveland Cavaliers jersey (figure 2). His arms are extended outwards and his head is tilted upwards, as he poses in front of an all-black background with the text “We Are All Witnesses” directly above him. The signature Nike swoosh is adjacent to the text. The billboard is meant to remind “we,” the intended audience, of our good fortune, as “We Are All Witnesses” to the greatness of James. This advertisement shows the pride and jubilation Cleveland experiences in being the palace to James’s kingdom. Through the text, the godlike pose of James, and the background, the advertisement also creates the impression of a man who is larger than life and stands alone on a pedestal above all others. Advertisements like this one are clear indicators that Nike and other corporations are looking to capitalize on America’s obsession with celebrity athletes, as they are aware of the impact sports superstars can have on American society.

Fans in Cleveland Watch LeBron James Television Special

James’s pose, an iconic sign that represents his greatness through apparent likeness, points to his godliness. Not only is he looking directly at the text, a message that is a product of his own greatness, but he is also looking towards the chalk that is hovering in the air. For those who do not know that the sign is chalk, it has the aura of a light shining down from above. Acting Burfeind fig2as a signifier, this mystifying light creates the impression that James is channeling his greatness through God himself. Along with the pose, the text could be seen as having religious meaning. Though the word “witness” is occasionally used in a negative light, as in witness to a crime, in this advertisement it can take on a more religious connotation, as if James came from a higher power and we must witness his glory. When comparing Lebron’s pose to an image of Jesus Christ on the cross, as in figure 3, we can see an astounding likeness. Both figures have their arms extended and heads tilted towards the heavens, and both seem to have an aura of light hovering above them. It was no accident that Nike chose an image of James that compared him to Christ, for the athlete is at a point in his career where some consider him holy, able to control and effect his “followers” with his performance on the court and, more importantly, off the court. However, before I delve into the impact athletes are having on society currently, I must first look at the man who has shaped modern sports media and advertising for what it is today: Michael Jordan.

Unlike Jackie Robinson or Muhammad Ali, Jordan didn’t have to endure “painful struggles against long-established prejudices and racial barriers,” nor did Burfeind fig4ahe politically challenge white power in any sense (Halberstam, 415). Corporate America had never dealt with an athlete like Jordan, a “stunningly gifted and attractive black athlete” who could also be a “compelling salesman of a vast variety of rather mundane products” (Halberstam, 416).  His advertisements and products could be found all over the world in the 1980s and 90s (figure 4). Since then, corporations like Nike and Adidas have been trying their best to create larger than life athletes who will not only sell their products, but also convince the public that athletes are heroes who can be trusted to make the right decision, every time.

Whether it is beneficial to society or not, athletes have become important role models for the youth of America, and how these athletes express themselves will try to be replicated by those who idolize them. The media industry profits from Americans’ desire to find their heroes in sports and turn them into celebrities. Yet with all the fame and fortune, it is not always the case that these athletes fit the mold of the hero. Yes, the media does put forth the message that an athlete’s competence is “undergirded by character and fortitude,” but in actuality these sports heroes are merely human; this makes the worshipping of athletes a risky move, considering that being famous isn’t enough to transform these athletes into “moral standard bearers” (Wenner, 8).  Lebron James isn’t paid to teach children how to behave, but is expected to do just that. Perhaps it is because James is so far removed from the average person that we expect him to behave like the hero he is perceived as. His hero persona is demonstrated by the low camera angle in the advertisement, as we are literally looking up at him. The all-black background further implies Lebron’s isolation from “normal” society. Or perhaps it’s because our tendency to feel personal relationships with athletes like Lebron leads us to feel personally betrayed when that athlete shows signs of weakness or normality. That Lebron James is prominently sporting his Cavaliers jersey in the Nike advertisement made the people of Cleveland trust Lebron. Either way, it is evident that through media exposure, these athletes are given the power to sway the masses, just as Christians believe that Christ could sway his followers through his words.

Nike’s objective with this advertisement was more about acknowledging the legend of Lebron James than about promoting a certain product. However, by creating a direct correlation between Nike and James, Nike is selling him to the public, making consumers believe that if one is to buy products from Nike, one can become as great as James himself. To Cleveland, the billboard offered more than a Nike advertisement; it was a message that let the world know that even though they might not have the richest history in sports, they had the present and future of sports in Lebron James. Through its simple yet powerful signs, including a line of text intended to rope in a certain audience along with a pose that implies a sense of holiness and invincibility, Nike’s ad puts forth the ideology that athletes can become larger than life; in this case Lebron James has become just that.

–Grant Burfeind

Works cited

Halberstam, David. Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made. New York: Random House, 1999.

Wenner, Lawrence A. Fallen Sports Heroes, Media, and Celebrity Culture. New York: P. Lang, 2013.


Figure 1. Nike advertisement featuring Lebron James, We Are All Witnesses, 2005.

Figure 2. Photograph of the billboard featuring Lebron James advertisement for Nike, Quicken Loans Arena, Cleveland, posted to, July 9, 2010.

Figure 3. Unknown artist, Jesus Christ on the cross,, last accessed April 24, 2014.

Figure 4. Nike Air advertisement featuring Michael Jordan, The Best on Earth, print, 1985.


  1. Yohann, I really liked your insight into my work. I badly wish I had found that excerpt from the bible prior to writing my paper (although I am not quite sure how I would cite the bible). It is very interesting that Nike would risk having such a religious connotation in their advertisement when it could have been easily avoided by choosing a different pose. But no major controversy arose from the ad so it seems to have paid off for them, as the “We Are All Witnesses” campaign is still having its impact felt across the nation today.

  2. McKayla, in response to your comment, surprisingly I did not find a whole lot of criticism towards the “We Are All Witnesses” campaign. More than anything, people were mad that Nike felt Lebron was already at such an elite status, as the public felt he still had more to prove before he could be seen as godly. Secondly, this advertisement was originally featured just in downtown Cleveland, but when Lebron James made his first appearance to the NBA Finals in 2007, the advertisement reappeared in digital and print form, being sold as posters, flags, and many other things. This was most likely intended to rope in a greater audience than just Cleveland

  3. Pedro, in response to your question about how advertisements operate in our culture today, America has an obsession with being up to speed on the latest and greatest products, trends, styles, etc. So when companies like Nike, a corporation that already has a legendary status, market their products to the world, the world wants to fit in and be apart of the Nike team and all that it represents. In this advertisement in particular, Nike is basically saying “Lebron James is with us so you know we must be a great company”. Celebrity endorsement is one of the most effective ways to advertise. Like I said in my essay, people view celebrities as godly and practically perfect human beings, therefore whatever they endorse we assume those products to be godly as well; why would an athlete such as Lebron James settle for anything less than the best? That is what Nike wants the public to think.

  4. Hye, to answer your question about how Nike handles other superstars such as Kobe or Jeremy Lin, they handle them very differently than they do Lebron. At this point, Kobe Bryant, though one of the greatest to ever play the game, is on his way out of the league and Nike realizes this. Jeremy Lin was more of a flash in the pan than a true superstar, so Nike rode that wave for as long as they could until the public got over Linsanity. Kobe Bryant’s advertisements usually center on the products that he is producing (shoes, shorts, etc), whereas Lebron’s advertisements are more about him and how great he is. Nike realizes how rare of a person Lebron James is and plans on milking every bit of his greatness out of him in order to bolster the company. While marketing shoes and gear usually leads to profit for Nike, , as Kobe is a big spokesman for Nike’s actual products which sell like hotcakes, marketing a legend like Lebron James can have an even greater impact.

  5. I’d like to first say I enjoyed your writing on the ways with which ads depict athletes more in a god like way, it was interesting the progression of ads in how they portrayed michael jordan to lebron james. The way with which you talked about how the images that ads produce isn’t always the image produced by the athletes. These ads have the ability to like you say portray Lebron James like Jesus Christ but they don’t always live up to this image. I think it is interesting how you says these advertisment companies have the ability to portray athletes in a way that causes them to sway the masses and this is a huge responsibility. I’d like to know more on maybe how ads have been able to change popular culture and sway the masses?

  6. Correction: “holiness, that is, the powder is a sign to a halo.”

  7. About observation that Nike’s presentation of LeBron resembles Jesus Christ, I would like to append your argument with some things I have found. The first is I put in the search key words “lebron james powder” into Google Images search I got the screen I clipped on . What I found interesting about the randomized image result is that LeBron does his act in several arm stances. Not only straightened arm poses but raised arm poses such as the first one from the imgur. But Nike chose to take a photo in which his arms extend just like a crucifixion pose. This, I believe, is done on purpose as the text beneath him suggests so. This text appears in Acts 2:32 :”This Jesus God raised up again, to which we are all witnesses.” Also, choosing to display his powder right above him, as you remark “indexes” holiness, that the powder is signifies a halo. Overall, Nike certainly had an aim of conveying a religious message besides, of course, remarking that their brand sponsors one of the greats.

  8. I thought the analysis of the Lebron James ad was very insightful, providing the reader with context and background information on the religious connections. However, after reading this post, I would like to know if Nike had to take any heat after the release of this ad since it is highly controversial and uses the comparison of God to promote a celebrity figure and established brand name. I would also like to know if this ad only appeared as a billboard in Cleveland. If so, Nike is making a clear decision who their target audience is (Cleveland fans) and a clear decision of avoiding ridicule. Lebron is an iconic figure, not only Cleveland but in other cities as well, where fans appreciate his “greatness.” But there are also a certain number of Cavaliers/Lebron haters who I’m sure had a lot to say about this advertisement. I think this post captures the mission of Nike’s Lebron ad, which is calling “dibs” on Lebron, who is on his way to becoming a renowned basketball legend.

  9. I really enjoyed the connection between the original ad and religion. I very enjoyed the juxtaposition between Lebron James and his fans with Jesus Christ and his followers. The physical comparison between the two figures using two images was also very helpful. The comparison with another famous athlete, Michael Jordan, was also helpful in a way that I was able to understand the progress of sports ad and how intentions for many campaigns have evolved throughout time. One thing I may be more curious to know about is how else does Nike advertise other contemporary athletes in other cities? How does Nike portray Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles or Jeremy Lin in New York? Do the messages carry the same meanings or are they different? But besides that, I especially enjoyed your point that you bring up in your conclusion when you mention that your original ad is not about selling him to the public, but more about asserting his legacy in the city.

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