Basketballs biggest star is under fire after wading into the NBAs China controversy, but his remarks are being weaponized by bad-faith actors
LeBron James has come under fire like never before after wading into the NBAs China controversy. On Monday, the Los Angeles Lakers star finally broke his silence on the tweet heard around the world: Daryl Moreys message of support for the Hong Kong protestors thats threatened to upset the multibillion-dollar relationship between the NBA and the Chinese market it has spent three decades cultivating.
LeBron told a group of reporters that Morey wasnt educated on the situation at hand and that so many people could have been harmed not only financially, physically, emotionally, spiritually by the Houston Rockets executives seemingly off-the-cuff post. So just be careful what we tweet and say and we do, even though, yes, we do have freedom of speech, but there can be a lot of negative that comes with that, too, he said.
LeBron is getting quite a bit of heat right now for comments that appear to suggest freedom of speech can have negative consequences. But at the same time its clear these remarks are largely being weaponized by many bad-faith actors trading in intellectual dishonesty in an effort to undermine the causes at home, including the state-sanctioned killings of unarmed black men in America, that LeBron has worked so hard to bring attention to. And why this erasure is happening is worthy of closer inspection.
LeBron almost immediately clarified his remarks, saying he was not referencing the substance of Moreys tweet, rather the way it created a potentially unsafe and hostile environment for the Lakers and Brooklyn Nets, who were in China for a preseason tour. Did Morey put the them in harms way? Could he have made the same valid points after they had returned home safely? Was it his place to put them in the middle of that fight? All valid questions from the athletes point of view.
The premise that LeBron is not in touch with the gravity of the situation is Hong Kong is a misconception. But rather than parrot anodyne talking points, he took a leadership role among his cohorts on the ground in China amid the unexpected crisis, reportedly organizing a players-only meeting as the situation unfolded. One source told the Athletics Shams Charani that in the meeting which featured players from the Lakers and Nets players wanted to address why they were the ones that had to risk speaking out while they were in China, when the league should be the first ones to address the matter.
This is not the act of a soulless profiteer as LeBron has been quickly cast, but a leader using his voice and agency to gather those around him and make sure everyone is on the same page in how to responsibly navigate an international crisis.
TV pundits around the country spent Tuesday teeing off on what they viewed as LeBrons hypocrisy while only exposing their own, following Donald Trumps example of using sport as a racially divisive tool for scapegoating and grandstanding to push a political agenda. To no ones surprise Fox News led the charge.
In the morning it was Foxs Jared Max, who said: I think LeBron James is thinking about himself. I dont think hes thinking about what people in Hong Kong are fighting for in this case. Its OK to tweet when its LeBrons issue, but when its something else hat hes not behind and willing to put his name behind, then we have a problem?
In the evening, it was usual suspects Tucker Carlson (with an assist from Barstool Sports) and Laura Ingraham, who once lambasted LeBron and Kevin Durant for having the audacity to have an opinion on anything outside of basketball. Ingraham, it should be noted, once dedicated an entire segment of her show to mocking LeBron while making the case that he didnt possess the intelligence to comment on anything outside of the borders of a court.
Also in the fray was Jason Whitlock, the Fox Sports pundit who never misses an opportunity to mock Colin Kaepernick for standing for what he believes, and who generally revels in (and profits from) being a black face spewing anti-black rhetoric.
Now we should be clear that LeBron is not above criticism, but my own conversations with prominent voices in the athlete activism space over the last few days stresses the importance of context and the danger of adhering to the rules of critics whose motives are in bad faith.
Dr Harry Edwards, the Berkeley professor and civil rights activist whose seminal 1973 work Sociology of Sport remains an essential blueprint for athlete activism to this day, warns us to consider the source.
As a people we [African Americans] have never been perceived or respected as credible witnesses in speaking even to our own interests or experiences, Edwards told me. And when it comes to issues and developments off shore that is foreign developments we are perceived, particularly by adversarial voices and interests, to have absolutely no legitimate basis to speak out at all unless we are parroting authoritative definitions of the situation.
So, predictably, the detractors of those black athletes who have been speaking out against and protesting the injustice of 147 mostly unarmed black people being murdered each year under cover of the badge are now attacking those same black athletes for not speaking out against and protesting the China-Hong Kong debacle, a political stance if assumed by black athletes would parrot and serve the political interests of those who are so critical of their anti-injustice dispositions regarding the circumstances of African Americans.
Even more to the point was Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, the former NBA star whose own career was cut short after he refused to stand for the national anthem while playing for the Denver Nuggets in 1996 a protest that presaged Kaepernicks movement by a generation.
African Americans who are well informed in particular are not unaware of the hypocrisy of presidents, politicians and commentators now wanting athletes to speak for causes that ultimately promote US exceptionalism and imperialism, domestically and abroad, Abdul-Rauf told me, while at the same time blatantly ignoring, to the point of a deathly silence, the plight of African Americans and people of color in this country.
He continued: Until we see a need for international solidarity, linking our struggles with those of others the strength we desire will forever be minimal and the achievement of social justice not realized. I have a major problem with people who play these type of games thinking we are this dumb to parrot what they want us to so that it benefits them while our problems are ignored. Quit trying to tell us how, when, where and what to say if you are not willing to pay attention to our life and death pleas for fairness and equality.
John Carlos, whose Black Power salute on the podium at the 1968 Olympics is one of the enduring images of the athlete activist movement, told me: They want to say players and coaches have to speak now. No, they dont have to do anything. We will no longer be your puppets. We will not let you speak through us. Freedom of speech goes both ways: you have the right to speak and the right to be silent.
Again, LeBrons remarks are not above rebuke, even when judged by the higher standard hes opted into by stepping up as a leader for social justice causes. But conservative critics like Carlson and Whitlock and Trump and Ingraham and Ted Cruz, who denigrate athletes for speaking up against the human rights violations happening on American streets and do the same when they dont for issues halfway around the world, are trading in the very double standard they allege. These people only care about democracy and freedom of speech and allowing athletes to use their platforms to speak about injustice when the position taken is convenient for their agendas. If its not, they want athletes to shut up and dribble. And that is the essence of hypocrisy.