When the NBA is involved in a social or political issue, people often look to LeBron James, the league’s most transparent superstar, to find the right words. This time, it was no different. Except James finally failed at finding the right words.
The NBA has always seen itself as a progressive entity – or at least, it has marketed itself that way. In general, their stances on social and political issues have been easy ones to take. But over the past couple of weeks, the league has been mired in an international, geopolitical controversy stemming from Rockets GM Daryl Morey’s innocuous tweet supporting protesters in Hong Kong.
The consequences came swift and strong while two NBA teams, the Lakers and the Nets, flew to China to play two exhibition games and appear at numerous events that were eventually canceled.
Media coverage was banned while the two teams were in China so reporters were not able to ask players and coaches what their thoughts on the situation were. That is, until they flew back to the United States.
Prior to the Lakers’ preseason game against the Warriors on Monday, James was asked for his thoughts on Morey, China and the NBA response. Rather than no comment his way out like most people in the NBA for the last week, LeBron took a more aggressive approach, criticizing Morey for being “uninformed” about the situation in China.
And of course, that immediately sounded like a “gotta see both sides” statement that effectively doubles down as support for China’s authoritarian policies and human rights violations.
James tried to clarify his comments, saying that he meant that Morey was uninformed about the consequences it would have for the two NBA teams in China and that he simply should have waited until they were back home before tweeting what became a catalyst for controversy and danger.
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.
— LeBron James (@KingJames) October 15, 2019
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.
— LeBron James (@KingJames) October 15, 2019
But it was too late. James was already receiving backlash from NBA fans disappointed that someone labeled as a social hero would make such a charged statement. James’ jerseys were burned in Hong Kong by protesters disappointed that such an iconic figure would not only not unilaterally support their fight for rights but to seemingly support their oppressor.
Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron @KingJames is being criticized in Hong Kong for his comments about free speech in the latest China/NBA fallout.
Some are burning his jersey.
Story and video by @johnleicester >> https://t.co/MQPgnQXvHO pic.twitter.com/H4Qy4zMVBo
— AP Sports (@AP_Sports) October 15, 2019
Here’s the thing. I’m willing to give LeBron the benefit of the doubt. Even as the initial quotes rolled down my Twitter timeline, my genuine thoughts were that he meant Morey’s tweet put him and his teammates in an awkward at best and dangerous at the worst position.
But I can still be disappointed in the message and the delivery. James fumbled this one in the fourth quarter by not being clear and by putting himself and others far ahead of those fighting for basic rights.
It’s hard not to look at LeBron’s comments about financial inconveniences and relate that to his massive Nike deal that automatically makes him a business partner with China. The same could be said of several NBA players there with him who had endorsement deals and events canceled in the wake of Morey’s comments. No matter how much you support player empowerment and their rights to make money off their work and image, it’s hard to feel sorry for millionaires juxtaposed with those fighting in the streets.
That’s where there’s a divide between what LeBron said and what LeBron (hopefully) meant. But words and the delivery of words matter just as much as the intended message and it’s hard to say LeBron didn’t fall flat on his statement.
Of course, the other end of the spectrum is that LeBron James should not be expected to solve a geopolitical issue as a basketball player. There are those that criticize James’s support of movements like Black Lives Matter and indifference for Hong Kong as hypocritical. But I would argue that that should be expected. Of course, he will be more passionate about an issue that affects him and his family domestically, an issue that he can have a tangible impact on solving.
In fact, the calls of cowardice are really the hypocritical nature of this issue. No one is calling on white athletes to speak out about Hong Kong but they criticize a black athlete on supporting a different issue. The level of backlash for Steve Kerr, another notably vocal commenter on social and political issues, saying that he was uninformed about China and had no comments is nowhere near what James received. Far-right pundits who used to claim that James should “shut up and dribble” have attempted to turn his recent comments into an opposite way of criticizing the star with plenty of racist dog whistles to boot.
There’s no clear right way to handle any of this. James was right to request there be no media coverage in China so that players would not have to answer questions about Morey before the NBA did its job in easing the tensions.
It’s a nuanced topic. There’s room to understand James’ message and criticize his delivery. Room to understand his fears but question his motivations. Room to be disappointed in his comments and not expect him to be a politician.
It’s the first real controversy in LeBron James’ career and it’s unfortunately well deserved.
In January 2018, LeBron tweeted a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
In this instance, LeBron fell short of that message.