It’s been slightly over a decade since NBA superstar LeBron James, after seven seasons with the Cleveland Cavaliers, signed with the Miami Heat as a free agent, leaving behind his hometown team. The move was revealed after a suspenseful media cycle, in an ESPN special titled The Decision, which drew criticism for shamelessly milking the drama of the moment.
James was maligned for the spectacle as well — it didn’t help that Cleveland fans felt betrayed and blindsided by a local hero — and something about his appearance at the time came to be emblematic of the whole mess.
To this day, people recall 2010 as the debut of his neckbeard.
Back then, the neckbeard had almost no positive associations to recommend it. As a facial hair “style,” it was gradually transforming from a signifier of unwashed nerdom to a measure of reactionary drift. One researcher has called the year a “tipping point” for the internet’s so-called manosphere, where interest in pickup artist techniques and pseudoscientific explanations of the masculine persona set the stage for “red pill” misogyny. Already, you could assume that a neckbeard guy was as invested in despising women as he was in video games; by 2014, this marriage of geek hobbies and virulent hate was crystallized in the Gamergate saga.
None of this had anything to do with LeBron, yet people couldn’t help noticing the inverted mound of hair underneath his chin (and clean-shaven cheeks). It did not reflect especially well on him.
But LeBron is nothing if not resilient. Now it’s hard to imagine him without the neckbeard, and through his commitment to the look, he has maybe transcended its shameful legacy. We are finely attuned to his grooming — when his wife helps him trim it, or when we suspect he’s dyed the gray out — as though these changes reflect his moods and tendencies as a veteran player.
In 2020, and the era of the NBA bubble, there is also a certain quarantine chic to letting your neck area go full Chia Pet. On social media, James even films himself from angles that accentuate the volume and thickness of the beard. We are practically inside the thing.
Why does the neckbeard suddenly work on LeBron?
For one thing, it’s a distraction from all the commentary on his bald spot and receding hairline: Keep people involved in the beard narrative, and they send fewer tweets about how you need to embrace baldness like smooth-domed legends Kobe and Jordan. But LeBron’s maintenance of the neckbeard cannot be overstated — whether or not you like how he manages the puffy layer cradling the bottom of his face, he is putting in the work to keep it even and pleasingly rounded. The classic neckbeard is the result of neglect, with a slovenly aspect to match; a really bad one suggests unkempt pubic hair. This neckbeard isn’t running wild, and so we can appreciate its comfort, its coziness. This is who he is. It’s inspiring.
Sadly, this can’t be taken as permission for everyone else to go all in on the look. My firm belief is that no white man will ever achieve the ideal coverage and density of the LeBron neckbeard — genetics have doomed us to, at best, an Amish or ZZ Top variant. But the whole beard-growing community can give thanks that with incredible perseverance, LeBron has moved the culture forward. Rather than relinquish the neckbeard to the bigots and the trolls, he’s making it a signature of athletic prowess.
It’s a face turn nobody saw coming, and it would have been unimaginable when everyone was clowning on him for The Decision. Where that debacle felt like a tribute to egotism (not dissimilar to any Reddit neckbeard’s manner of posting), 2020 Neckbeard LeBron is appreciating the little stuff, like Taco Tuesday. Wholesome!
It was inevitable: “Neckbeard” as a way of describing certain creeps online has lost some of its punch, simply because lots of those guys are now full-blown incels, neo-Nazis and serial harassers. Judged against their toxic behavior, matters of scruff and stubble are hardly relevant. Better now that we see them plainly — plain as the beard that swaddles LeBron James’ neck.
Keep rockin’ it, king.