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LeBron James has not had a history of silence on social issues facing the U.S. In speaking candidly with Jon Stewart, he said: “at the end of the day when I decided I was going to start speaking up, and not giving a fuck about the backlash, or if it affects me, my whole mindset was: it’s not about me. I think [Mohammed] Ali already knew that it wasn’t about him. I’m gonna get the backlash. I’m gonna go to jail, for what this is gonna do for the next group, for the next athlete, for the next minority who wants to speak up.
That’s true for social justice issues in the U.S., but for LeBron, youth in the rest of the world just doesn’t deserve his support.
LeBron was asked about the NBA-China debacle that saw the NBA grovel and apologize for the Houston Rockets GM, Daryl Morey, and his comments supporting freedom and democracy for Hong Kong. LeBron James had the gall to say: “We all talk about this freedom of speech. Yes, we all do have freedom of speech, but at times, there are ramifications for the negative that can happen when you’re not thinking about others, and you’re only thinking about yourself. I don’t want to get in a word … sentence feud with Daryl Morey, but I believe he wasn’t educated on the situation at hand, and he spoke. And so many people could have been harmed, not only financially, but physically, emotionally, spiritually. So just be careful what we tweet and what we say and what we do. Even though yes, we do have freedom of speech, but there can be a lot of negative that comes with that too.”
It’s astonishing to see such a flip flop on free speech from James. What changed? The NBA, which makes millions off Chinese revenue, has effectively muzzled its staff and players from speaking out in favour of democracy since Morey’s comments. The NBA has exposed itself as being deeply hypocritical on the issue of human rights and King James has just cemented his status as King of the Hypocrites.
The NBA is an enormous industry in China. Brought to China by YMCA missionaries in the late 1800s, basketball became much loved by the people. Mao was a proponent of the sport as well, as were the generals in the Red Army. When Chinese media began playing NBA highlight reels in the 1980s, the country was hooked. In the 1990s, the NBA signed a Television deal with China, just in time for Michael Jordan to capture the hearts of a new fan base, and the NBA in China exploded. Merchandise sales followed.
Basketball in China was not political, it was instead an arena where Chinese and American fans could come together for entertainment that had nothing to do with social differences. The Houston Rockets drafted Yao Ming in a first round draft pick in 2002, and brought intense national pride to Chinese basketball fans. The NBA in China, as have so many other American companies, have steered clear of any political conversation regarding China’s totalitarianism or human right abuses. There is clearly a profit motive here, but also a well-intentioned (albeit poorly executed) goal of keeping basketball in a place where people could enjoy the game for entertainment value alone.
James was echoing the sentiments of the NBA in his response to Morey. The NBA basically wanted Morey to shut up. But what happened is that the NBA, in trying to appease China, angered both U.S. free speech advocates and Chinese basketball fans. Chinese state TV pulled the preseason Rockets games from their broadcast schedule, and the American media and the Twitterverse freaked out. When NBA Commissioner Adam Silver addressed the situation while on a visit to Asia in support of the preseason games being played on the continent, he walked a very fine line.
“There is no doubt, the economic impact is already clear,” Silver said to Kyodo news. “There have already been fairly dramatic consequences from that tweet, and I have read some of the media suggesting that we are not supporting Daryl Morey, but in fact we have… I think as a values-based organization that I want to make it clear… that Daryl Morey is supported in terms of his ability to exercise his freedom of expression.”
With the NBA’s biggest star and ambassador advocating for Morey’s “reeducation,” those words might ring a bit hollow. James tried to clean up his mess by explaining that his teammates and the league have had a “difficult week”:
The protestors in Hong Kong have had a “difficult week” or two themselves. But James is here to deliver the NBA’s message of silence and collaboration with a brutal communist dictatorship. The Hong Kong protesters need to be supported. Period.
The silver lining of this dark cloud over the NBA is that a new basketball superstar has emerged in the name of Enes Kanter. Kanter immediately tweeted his disgust for James’ terrible Hong Kong by speaking out about his own plight fighting for democracy in Turkey.
Kantor followed up with an impassioned op-ed for the Boston Globe about his activism. Perhaps Kanter could take some time out of his busy schedule to educate Lebron about the importance of democracy and free speech. After all, if there’s one thing that this whole embarrassing fiasco has revealed, it’s that the one who needs an education is LeBron James.