LeBron James Bends the Knee to China, Fails His First Big Test as the NBA’s Conscience
The living basketball legend has been outspoken on Trump and Black Lives Matter, which is why his anti-democratic stance on China is so disappointing.
They are as schizoid, as double-minded in the massive presence of money, as any of the rest of us, and that’s the hard fact. The Man has a branch office in each of our brains, his corporate emblem is a white albatross, each local rep has a cover known as the Ego, and their mission in this world is Bad Shit. —Thomas Pynchon
Last night, just when it started to feel like it may be coming to an end, LeBron James reignited the flame of the NBA’s ongoing China imbroglio when he spoke to reporters after practice.
A few weeks back, Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey tweeted a fairly benign sentiment in solidarity with ongoing pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. Morey deleted it fairly quickly, presumably having realized that his tweet might constitute a faux pas in the eyes of the notoriously sensitive Chinese government. The NBA does big business in China, a country with historical and cultural ties to the game of basketball and a deeply unnerving attachment to Kobe Bryant, in particular. Tilman Fertitta, a reality-TV star and the owner of the Rockets, issued an apology on Twitter, claiming Morey didn’t speak for the organization, and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver sent out a contrite statement saying that Morey’s views didn’t represent the NBA’s or the Rockets’ feelings on the matter. After Silver was widely accused of not defending Morey’s free-speech rights, he issued a statement that affirmed that China would not have control over NBA employees’ right to free speech. As all this was happening, China began to put the economic clamps on the league, refusing to air NBA preseason games that were scheduled for state television in a naked effort to pressure the NBA into bending the knee.
While all this was going on, LeBron was in China to play a pair preseason games against the Brooklyn Nets, and not really addressing any of this with reporters. When he got back, however, he spoke to reporters and gave a compromised answer:
James insisted that Morey was talking out of turn, about something the MIT grad didn’t really know about, and that he should watch what he says or posts because it might reflect poorly on the league. There is a cadre of people who are disappointed in James, who has spoken on a lot of other, more familiar issues during his time in the league.
Over the last few years, LeBron has let his feelings about President Trump be known far and wide, regarding him with open contempt to every reporter who asks and famously calling the president a “bum” when he made shitty political hay out of the Warriors skipping their White House visit. He called for gun control after another mass shooting in his home state of Ohio. He declared his support for the free-speech rights of Colin Kaepernick after the NFL began to blackball him from the league. And when Eric Garner was choked to death by NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo, he got his teammates to wear black shirts during the pregame, adorned with Garner’s finals words: “I can’t breathe.”
It stands to reason that he would bring the same energy in the face of an ongoing soft-power flex by the Chinese government. No matter how you feel about the Chinese government’s relationship to Hong Kong (and Taiwan, and Tibet, and other places), it’s still tastelessly undemocratic to watch a country exert their will to silence dissent in a country where they are not supposed to have any political authority.
LeBron’s insistence, rooted in the argument that Morey’s brief, boring post about Hong Kong constituted a breach of manners that made unnecessary headaches for the league, feels like a capitulation to most people—a decision made with an eye toward the Chinese market. LeBron could have gotten in front of reporters and unwaveringly supported democratic values by saying that he supported Daryl’s right to free speech, then stepped off the podium and played Angry Birds in the locker room while he got his post-game massage. His decision to hedge in favor of China’s efforts to use economic pressure to limit free speech in America is, in no uncertain terms, a stain on his record as the conscience of the NBA—a role he has mostly excelled at during his time as the league’s best and most important player. It’s disappointing, for sure.
But it’s also very telling.
In the aftermath of the interview, Celtics center Enes Kanter sounded off about LeBron’s stance, or lack thereof, on Twitter:
Kanter has been one of the NBA’s most fascinating players over the last few years on account of his outspoken stand against the regime of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the authoritarian president of Turkey. In speaking out, Kanter has been subjected to all sorts of injustice at the hands of the Turkish government:
When the Portland Trail Blazers, Kanter’s previous team, made the conference finals last season, there was some concern about an NBA Finals’ matchup with the eventual champion Toronto Raptors, because Turkey had issued an INTERPOL arrest warrant against Kanter, and crossing the Canadian border would make him subject to their authority. Oregon Senator Ron Wyden interceded on his behalf, and it only ended up not mattering because the Blazers got swept by the Warriors.
Kanter’s obstinacy in the face of tyranny is very moving—and very American. When we are young children, in class, we learn about the Bill of Rights, the Emancipation Proclamation, the war we fought to free the slaves, how the Founding Fathers wrote down our ideals and then their descendants slowly learned to actually implement them, one by one. We are told that democracy governs our world, and that we should seek to evangelize its light to all who listen, and that capitulation in the face of tyranny is loathsome.
But then we become adults, and we learn about who actually governs our world: the long, smelly, endlessly-adaptable blob of capitalism. Capital gets you fed, puts clothes on your body, determines where you can buy a sleep, how you get places, what the nicest phone you can afford is, and, as it turns out, it has far fewer ideals than it’s so-called partner, democracy.
When the United States allowed China to join the World Trade Organization in 2001, the U.S. insisted that free exchange of capital would bring democratic ideals to the world’s largest nation. This didn’t end up happening. Instead, China’s government has let foreign money in on its own terms, kept out any company that might pose a threat to its stranglehold on regulating speech, expanded its imperial ambitions, and pursued a terrifying surveillance state out of the technology the rest of the world sells to them—all while Western corporations, supposedly operated by people who grew up on democratic ideals, buy and sell and build and invest there.
Various grandstanding politicians across the political spectrum have expressed open disdain for the NBA’s response to all this. It makes sense, of course: it’s a pretty easy thing to grandstand on. But their outrage seems rather narrow considering how complicit everyone in the developed world is—including their constituents, their donors, the lobbyists they talk to everyday, the think tanks that develop the legislation they introduce. China has become an essential building block in the global supply chain that keeps everyone clothed and on iPhones every day, and has made itself into capital’s darling growth market; the home of a gold rush that is drawing piles of money and tax revenue and economic attention, all without embracing anything that could reasonably be called a democratic value.
The NBA isn’t even the most powerful sports-related entity that’s found itself catering to the cravings of moneyed autocrats. In the last 20 years, the IOC has stuck the Olympics in Beijing and Sochi, and will be returning to Beijing for the Winter Games in 2022. FIFA is gearing up to hold the 2020 World Cup in Qatar, of all places, where teams all over the world will play the beautiful game in stadiums built in deadly temperatures by slave labor.
It’s easy to get mad at LeBron James for doing what the world he’s lived in his entire adult life has taught him to do. And honestly, we probably should. He is more than rich enough that he should not stand in front of reporters and provide cover for the soft-power flexing of an autocracy that is imposing its narrow idea of acceptable political expression on a country where freedom of speech is supposedly a core value. Enes Kanter, who came to America from a country where freedom of political expression is not necessarily a given, understands that you have to make sacrifices in the pursuit of liberty.
For most of his career, any statement LeBron has made about the world around him, many of which were affecting and clearly deeply felt, has been met with near-universal praise. He’s a woke athlete in a time when standing up for your values doesn’t hurt the balance sheet. But when push comes to shove, we see that he, like so many of us, is a product of the real values living in America teaches you, what our economy rewards, the personal pursuit of the never-ending expansion of capital. If we actually want to show the world we value democracy, we need to start by teaching our economic system to feel the same way.