LeBron James is the villain now, to many, for one comment this week that served to inflame rather than quell the fallout from the NBA’s China crisis.
It isn’t especially fair, but this is the take-sides society we have become, where the moderate middle has disappeared and nuance gets bludgeoned by the immediacy of outrage that social media provides (and encourages).
So LeBron is the sellout now, right? The faker who turned his back on social justice where money was involved?
More on that thorny question in a minute. First, the easy answer: No. He isn’t.
The I Promise School that James founded for at-risk kids in Akron, Ohio, is thriving. In Miami we remember when he wore that hoodie in support of Trayvon Martin. James spoke out against that white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. He has defended Colin Kaepernick against the misrepresentations. Worn “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts during warmups. Spoke out on stage at the 2016 ESPYs.
At every turn, James — still the biggest star in the NBA at 34 even as “best player” is now arguable — has shown his heart is right. There is a world off the court that he cares to impact, and does. He is a model for athlete activism, for the use of platform and voice.
It is only in this context of credibility earned that raised eyebrows this week when he said Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey “wasn’t informed” in writing the tweet that caused the firestorm.
Morey of course had tweeted, “Fight for freedom. Stand with Hong Kong,” in support of pro-democracy rallies there. To most Americans, the tweet was benign. To China, it was an outrage.
So the broad reaction to LeBron calling Morey “misinformed” was that, instead of supporting Morey’s freedom of expression (or those demonstrations for democracy), LeBron was looking out for the NBA’s financial interests in its lucrative relationship with China.
Michael Jordan once explained his avoiding all controversy and politics by infamously saying, “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”
Now the internet is portraying LeBron as tantamount to saying, “Communists buy sneakers, too.” The benefit of doubt he has earned by years of good-doing is not being given.
Contained in LeBron’s interview but seldom quoted is that he objected to the timing of Morey’s tweet, wishing it would have waited a week, rather than happen as the NBA and LeBron’s L.A. Lakers were in China for preseason games.
But he also did mention that Morey’s tweet outraging China could have impacted “so many people financially” — the crux on which this whole story turns.
The NBA and by extension players make plenty from the league’s multi-billion dollar alliance with China. Heck, retired Heat star Dwyane Wade has a lifetime contract with Chinese apparel company Li-Ning.
So criticism of China has been taboo within the NBA.
China’s overreaction to Morey’s tweet was cartoonishly extreme and silly, but nobody around the NBA dared suggest it.
China is one of the world’s worst peddlers of oppression and violators of human rights, says Human Rights Watch (hrs.org), yet the NBA does it business conveniently ignoring all such things.
Yet the NBA is hardly alone among American companies holding financial hands with China or Chinese entities. So do Walmart, JPMorgan Chase, PayPal, Tesla and, yes, ESPN, among others.
That is why we’re not hearing a lot of NBA support for Morey but instead hearing James Harden say, “We apologize [for Morey’s tweet]. We love China.”
James merely fell in line this week with company policy, which is to emphasize the partnership with the China as global bridge-building — not as a billion-dollar arrangement with a brutal authoritarian state.
What LeBron said wouldn’t have been controversial at all except for his own standards on matters of social justice. From him, we expected more.