Harrison Barnes Has an Image Problem

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Last week, The Atlantic published an article on North Carolina sometimes-star Harrison Barnes and his efforts to brand himself as a not-quite-yet-global icon. It's gotten a lot of (mostly negative) attention in sports circles, particularly now that Barnes struggled in UNC's two regional games, with critics saying that Barnes has focused on his earning power to the detriment of his progression as an athlete, or that he thinks too much for his own good. Never mind that branding is a fairly standard part of the college star's life these days. The NBA's age limit exists, at least in part, to ensure that players enter the league with a narrative and reputation beyond that of the guy everyone only knows because he entered the draft straight from high school. Barnes also isn't the first player to think of his college career as a brand platform—O.J. Mayo was pretty forthright in his reasons for attending USC rather than a more traditional hoops power.

The article is still worth discussing, though, because Barnes comes across not just as a business-oriented athlete, but something more like a corporatist sociopath who conceives of human beings foremost as money-making entities. Let's enumerate the highlights, because it's funnier that way:

1. Barnes arrives to his interview with Jason Zengerle in a conservative suit and gold tie. They meet at the Dean Dome's press room, where most basketball players wear sweats.

2. He at one point elaborates that, in Zengerle's paraphrase, "players are akin to pieces of inventory that, if they don’t produce, get replaced by other pieces that do." Some teams, like the Spurs, have established roles that don't change across eras, but Barnes is likely the first prospective pro to refer to the league's complete roster as a set of interchangeable parts.

3. Barnes says that athletes "gain a lot of capital," as if they were startups seeking funding rather than famous people making large salaries.

4. He thinks that it's "a waste" for any athlete who doesn't use his profile to make more money, which makes sense but also seems like a pretty dickish thing to say to a bunch of guys who've accomplished his ostensible dream.

5. Barnes refers to Kobe Bryant's decision to endorse Turkish Airlines despite criticism from Lakers fans as "thinking outside the box," apparently not realizing that L.A.'s large Armenian population is still peeved about that whole genocide thing.

6. He doesn't discuss his Christianity or political opinions—not because they're personal, but because they could turn off potential fans and consumers.

7. On potentially making the Final Four in New Orleans: "There’s no better exposure and no better way of getting the hype machine going than UNC returning back to New Orleans, 30 years after Michael Jordan, of all people, won it there. ... It would be an unbelievable stage. ... And if we end up winning a national championship there? The media might just explode." The win itself seems to be secondary to the attention it would bring him.

Throughout, Barnes seems to conceive of his brand-defined earning power as the primary point of his career. While star athletes increasingly consider their personal brand to be a major part of their careers, most seem to realize that it's not the thing itself—that the sport comes first and that the brand should reflect a person's interests and beliefs as often as possible. Barnes, on the other hand, almost seems to wish to erase his personal life entirely to make himself so bland that no corporation could ever turn him down. The approach is postmodern, or maybe just what happens before we start using underground farms to harvest nutrients from people who don't make more than $100,000 per year. It's part of the Worthington Law, I think.

Except the context of the article matters. This isn't a wide-ranging profile of Barnes, but a piece specifically oriented towards explaining the concept of athlete marketing to an audience that may like sports but not consume it with the fervor of diehard fans and sports bloggers. The Barnes we see here might not be the real athlete (let alone the young man)—he's probably just a business student-athlete who was answering a bunch of questions about the ways he develops his personal brand. The story isn't about basketball, so it rarely discusses Barnes as an athlete with specific career goals. The brand-focused automaton of the piece could very well be a kid who's taken some classes on branding without really understanding how to apply those concepts in the real world. Like, you know, failing to realize that a personal brand isn't quite so effective if you tell everyone it's your brand. Steve Nash doesn't run around telling everyone he's the socially conscious artist of the NBA world. He just acts like he is and hopes people get on board. The real brand-management problem with the article isn't that Barnes is actually corporate scum in its pupa stage, but that he never should be interviewed for this kind of piece in the first place.

Yet Barnes is still an outlier, because most athletes don't talk about branding in this manner or wear suits to interviews. But he's also probably more like other potential lottery picks than the Atlantic feature makes him out to be. At the very least, he's still trying to decide exactly who he wants to be as a public figure. Like most 19-year-olds, he's still a work in progress. If it seems like no kid that age could be quite so obsessed with his brand, it's likely because he's not.

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