“The present is a gift, and I just wanna be…” — Common, Be
On October 4, 2019, Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey shared a picture via Twitter which read “Fight For Freedom Stand With Hong Kong.” This tweet seemingly showcased his support for protesters in Hong Kong who, according to ESPN News Services (2019), largely became active due to a proposed extradition bill that would have allowed criminal suspects to be extradited to mainland China to face trial under certain circumstances.
Critics of this bill — namely Hong Kong protesters — felt it would risk exposing Hong Kong residents to violent treatment and unfair trials. Moreover, BBC News (2019) stated that the bill’s opponents believed it would give China more influence over Hong Kong — the region currently has more autonomy than mainland China — and could be used to prey on activists and journalists. Apparently, Chinese activists saw this bill as a threat to certain legal rights that residents of Hong Kong have under the existing “one country, two systems” framework (ESPN News Services, 2019). Though the bill was withdrawn in September, violent clashes between police and activists have continued.
Morey’s tweet, though well intentioned, was not well received by the Chinese government. Notably, it negatively impacted business relationships between the NBA, the league’s players, and China. NBA superstar LeBron James and his Los Angeles Lakers team reportedly had no knowledge of the damage Morey’s tweet caused as they traveled to play two exhibition games against the Brooklyn Nets in China on Monday, October 7th (McMenamin, 2019).
After arriving, however, James, fellow NBA players, and Americans who accompanied them on the trip (e.g., US journalists) found themselves in a tense predicament. According to Washington (2019), the Chinese government responded to Morey’s tweet by initially cancelling both Lakers-Nets broadcasts and several NBA community events in addition to suspending a smartphone company’s NBA sponsorship. Moreover, the Rockets’ TV broadcasts were suspended, as well as its affiliation with the Chinese Basketball Association and online news and game streaming deals.
Morey has since deleted his tweet and apologized.
No toying around
James was asked questions regarding the NBA’s strained relationship with China due to Morey’s tweet on Monday, October 14th, a little over a week after witnessing the tension in China, playing there against the Nets, and returning to the US. His answers to these questions, which he gave before facing the Golden State Warriors later that day, revealed many things. First, James made the press aware that he, his teammates, and the Lakers organization were not informed enough about the protests in Hong Kong to comment on the issue. Second, the NBA superstar made public his true feelings about Morey’s tweet. He asserted:
“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. So, I don’t believe…I don’t wanna’ get into a word or sentence feud with Daryl, 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…”
James later added:
“I believe he was either misinformed or not really educated on the situation, and if he was then so be it. But I have no idea, but that’s just my belief. Because just, when you say things or do things…if you’re doing it and you know the people that can be affected by it, and the families, and the individuals, and everyone that can be affected by it, sometimes things can be changed as well. And also, sometimes social media is not always the proper way to go about things as well.”
See James’ full interview below:
Following James’ comments, specifically regarding Morey’s tweet, he received much criticism. Later that day, James tried clarifying his position on the matter via Twitter, stating:
“Let me clear up the confusion. I do not believe there was any consideration for the consequences and ramifications of the tweet. I’m not discussing the substance. Others can talk About that.”
“My team and this league just went through a difficult week. I think people need to understand what a tweet or statement can do to others. And I believe nobody stopped and considered what would happen. Could have waited a week to send it.”
Despite his efforts, James’ critics were not pleased. Opponents of his comments about Morey’s tweet included sports commentators, politicians, and Chinese citizens. Moreover, television shows such as South Park and The Daily Show seemingly joined the frenzy by mocking the NBA superstar. Some expressed disappointment in James, referencing his social activism in America throughout the duration of his NBA career. Others called the NBA superstar’s response “weak” and felt his primary concern was to maintain a cordial business relationship with China.
The art of giving
James’ social activism in the US comprises many impressive accomplishments, including the LeBron James Family Foundation, whose mission is to positively impact the lives of both children and young adults through education as well as co-curricular educational initiatives, and the I Promise School, a public school located in Akron, Ohio for at-risk students, which since its 2018 founding has seen tangible results. James has also been outspoken about the killings of unarmed Black men at the hands of police officers and criticized President Donald J. Trump on numerous occasions due to attitudes the president has expressed which many deem racist, as well as President Trump’s attack of fellow NBA colleague Stephen Curry in the past.
Looking at the entirety of James’ social activism, one might deduce he is largely focused on remedying issues that he understands and is connected to. Standing up for Black families, inner-city youth, and fellow NBA players should not be considered abnormal for the NBA superstar seeing that he is a Black man who grew up in poverty and was raised by a single mother to become a basketball phenom. Given this understanding, one must ask why James is expected to address issues occurring in Hong Kong?
Some believe James should be more vocal about current Chinese politics since he idolizes Muhammad Ali, who was known for being outspoken about political issues concerning Black Americans and the Vietnam War. Further supporting his admiration of Ali is a 2016 tweet James posted in response to his widow Lonnie Ali, which read:
Reacting to his stance on Morey’s tweet, Ali’s ex-wife Khalilah Ali reportedly stated that James is “no Muhammad Ali” — which has been echoed by other critics — but could be if he adjusts the way he deals with global political issues. Despite her response, however, it is worth mentioning that James once stated he would never compare himself to Ali.
Furthermore, when reflecting on Ali’s legacy following his death in 2016, the NBA superstar focused heavily on how the boxer and activist helped make life better for African Americans today. Thus, it can be inferred that James considers Ali a major figure in Black history and is trying to honor his legacy by being an outspoken Black individual who largely helps his community. James has yet to weigh in heavily on the boxer’s work involving global politics.
Another case made against the NBA superstar, aiding the belief that he should be speaking about social justice issues beyond the US, is that he once touched on problems faced by youth globally during a voice recording featured in NBA 2K20. Specifically, he stated:
“You know, I speak for those without a voice, people who grew up like I did: poor, without hope. Those people, those kids, they exist on every corner of the globe, and they’re all deserving of a chance.”
Nevertheless, it is unknown whether James made these comments for the game or if he was reading a script. If the former is true, then James’ critics might be justified in calling him hypocritical regarding his lack of support for Hong Kong. Still, it is important to remember his claim that he is not informed enough to be commenting on the protests happening in China.
The thought that counts
It is better to be informed rather than just opinionated. Throughout history, especially in the US, there have been many instances where groups of people have voiced their beliefs about specific subjects without properly educating themselves. An example of this was seen in a 2017 segment on Jimmy Kimmel Live, where people where asked whether they prefer the Affordable Care Act (ACA) or Obamacare — the latter being a nickname of the ACA based on former President Barack H. Obama’s name. Most respondents, many of whom did not favor President Obama, chose the ACA, unaware that the two choices were the same. Perhaps James did not speak on the Hong Kong situation for fear of being just as misguided.
In a recent episode of Ebro in the Morning, which aired October 17th, radio host Ebro Darden made an assertion seemingly supporting James’ apprehension. Specifically, he stated:
“People are living in America putting what China’s going through through an American lens. And that’s…while we may disagree with what’s going on over there, you can’t just apply our ethics policies and things like that to another place. Just blanket, without understanding.”
Considering this point, it is understandable that James would not feel adequately equipped to support Hong Kong’s protesters. Moreover, one must ask if it is fair for the US to judge China’s government based on American values?
A counterpoint to James’ claim that he is not informed enough to be commenting on political issues in China could be that the NBA superstar has visited the country about 15 to 20 times. Having interacted with the Chinese for that long, one would assume he has at least some knowledge of their politics. Nevertheless, it can also be argued that James’ focus while in the country has solely been basketball-related. This would not be a farfetched conclusion, especially considering the fact that Americans have a reputation for being ignorant to world affairs.
Oddly enough, when interviewed about Morey James seemingly implied that the General Manager’s post on Twitter was ignorant to world affairs as well.
In the wrapping
No one can definitively say that Morey “wasn’t educated on the situation at hand,” as James claimed during his pre-game interview on October 14th. However, the NBA superstar’s follow-up tweet stating Morey did not have any “consideration for the consequences and ramifications of the [his] tweet” may hold some weight. Soon after Morey’s tweet was posted — deleted immediately following the backlash, American citizens affiliated with the NBA were either traveling to or already in China. These visitors were in a potentially dangerous situation, especially considering they were on foreign land. This could have been what James meant when tweeting that his team, either the Lakers, his management team, or both, “went through a difficult week.”
Additionally, one player from Team USA reportedly wondered why Morey would tweet in support of Hong Kong’s protesters when the issue of China’s sovereignty was drilled into Team USA players who went to China and competed in the FIBA World Cup this year (McMenamin, 2019).
Perhaps, Morey was blinded by compassion for the Hong Kong protesters. For this reason, one could argue he was not only thinking about himself, as James seemingly claimed. Nevertheless, Morey’s actions can be called into question since prior to the NBA’s exhibition games with China it is difficult to find evidence of him speaking out against the killing of unarmed Black people by police officers in the US or institutional racism, matters which may impact numerous Black players in the NBA, who make up the majority. ESPN correspondent and former NBA player Kendrick Perkins hinted at this when he tweeted:
“Morey is entitled to his own, but he could have chose to address the young man [Joshua Brown] that was just killed by police in his Dallas apt and he didn’t or anything else that’s going on right here in America, but we just going to sweep it under the rug?”
One must ask why Morey felt compelled to speak on China’s issues rather than or while seemingly ignoring American issues — systemic racism and oppression of Black people is an American problem. Were his intentions truly noble? Moreover, why did Morey choose to speak in favor of Hong Kong’s protests knowing NBA players would be traveling to China soon after? Did he not consider any future consequences?
Other than jeopardizing the safety of American visitors while in China, it is worth noting that Morey’s tweet cost many NBA players and affiliates millions in earnings, going back to the “strained business arrangements” mentioned earlier. Talk of finances has been a major point of emphasis by various entities reporting on this story of the NBA’s now strained relationship with China. According to Hill (2019), the NBA is heavily invested in China, with several NBA players having signed endorsement deals with Chinese companies or, as is the case with James, capitalizing on a Chinese market that highly values American basketball. Therefore, it was in everyone’s best interest to be cordial with China while NBA players and their affiliates were visiting the country.
It is uncertain if Morey’s tweet would have resulted in the same financial ramifications had there not been exhibition games played there. For example, one Lakers player allegedly had a $1 million endorsement deal prior to the trip with a Chinese company but lost it upon arriving to China (McMenamin, 2019). Perhaps this is what James meant when tweeting that Morey “Could have waited a week to send it [his tweet].”
Financial ties to China is what many believe has made James critical of Morey’s tweet and silent about the Hong Kong protests. To be fair, James made it known that finances were one of his concerns when he was interviewed about the NBA’s issues with China. This is understandable given his lifetime deal with Nike, which does considerable business with China, that could potentially exceed $1 billion in the future. Regarding this, Washington (2019) implied that James should speak on problems affecting China since they are huge supporters of him. While on the surface this statement seems fair, one must also understand the repercussions James’ criticisms of China may have on the NBA and other players.
Currently, James is recognized as being the face of the NBA. If Morey, being the Houston Rockets’ General Manager, caused such a stir between the NBA and China with one tweet, one could only imagine the ramifications that would ensue had James shown his support for Hong Kong’s protesters. Not only would the NBA superstar’s words impact him, but they could also impact those who may not want to address any political issues involving China.
On the off chance that James’ sole motive for criticizing Morey’s tweet was to maintain his business partnerships with China, one could argue several reasons why he is justified, including paying for youth to attend college, funding his own production company, and aspiring to one day own an NBA team. While on the surface it may seem that the latter two reasons might be selfish on James’ part, it should be noted that they also allow the NBA superstar to further his social activism.
For example, in January of this year news broke that his production company SpringHill Entertainment, which James runs with business partner Maverick Carter, partnered with award-winning actress Octavia Spencer to make an upcoming Netflix series centered on the life of Black millionaire entrepreneur Madame C.J. Walker. Stories that highlight Black figures such as Walker can be impactful to Black youth who need more positive images on screen that reflect themselves.
In closing, it is unfair to task James with being a global activist or compare his social justice work to others such as Muhammad Ali, especially when he has shown a desire to primarily address issues he understands and holds dear. Moreover, James has made it clear that every issue should not be everyone’s problem. If James were to support Hong Kong’s protesters, which according to Silverman (2019) could backfire, and focus on global issues in addition to what he values, would it eventually take away from his activism in the US? Arguably, his focus in America has largely been on those who are poor, come from inner-city communities, and are impacted by systemic racism — largely Black individuals. If James were to spread himself too thin, he may be taking away from American populations that are often ignored and receive little to no resources.
Furthermore, those who criticize James must also address their own hypocrisy. During the abovementioned episode of Ebro in the Morning, NBA player Andre Iguodala, who guest appeared, gave his take on James’ comments about Morey’s tweet, stating:
“The thing that bothered me the most was when we [NBA athletes — usually Black] make our statements about being home, about being American, and issues we have in America, it’s like ‘shut up and dribble’… But it’s interesting in this situation with China, they’re shoving a camera in our face and be like ‘No, you can’t say no comment. We need you to speak on this.’”
Here, Iguodala highlighted the pushback James has often received for being a social activist in the US. Oddly, those opinions differ now, with many expecting James to speak about a foreign country.
In addition, critics of the NBA superstar must also ask if they are guilty of contributing to China’s human rights violations through their purchase of items made in China, which has been known to use child labor and mistreat factory employees. Lastly, if a consensus has been reached that James is more concerned with making a profit than speaking on Chinese politics, one must ask if critics of James would jeopardize their millions in earnings if faced with the same predicament as him?
BBC News. (2019, October 14). The hong kong protests explained in 100 and 500 words. Retrieved October 20, 2019, from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-49317695.
ESPN News Services. (2019, October 8). Adam silver reacts as chinese tv cancels nba game broadcasts. Retrieved October 22, 2019, from https://www.espn.com/nba/story/_/id/27797311/nba-commissioner-adam-silver-reacts-chinese-tv-cancels-game-broadcasts.
Hill, J. (2019, October 16). Et tu, lebron? Retrieved October 21, 2019, from https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/10/lebron-james-cant-fix-nbas-china-problem/600127/.
McMenamin, D. (2019, October 16). Inside lebron james’ and adam silver’s make-or-break moments in china. Retrieved October 22, 2019, from https://www.espn.com/nba/story/_/id/27852687/inside-lebron-james-adam-silver-make-break-moments-china.
Silverman, R. (2019, October 20). What did lebron james say about china that nearly everyone else in the nba hasn’t said, too? Retrieved October 22, 2019, from https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/what-did-lebron-james-say-about-china-nearly-everyone-else-ncna1069131.
Washington, J. (2019, October 16). Lebron james missed an opportunity with his comments about china. Retrieved October 21, 2019, from https://theundefeated.com/features/lebron-james-missed-an-opportunity-with-his-comments-about-china/.