LeBron James faced intense criticism Tuesday after he chastised the Houston Rockets executive who expressed support for the Hong Kong anti-government protests, with one Republican senator accusing the Los Angeles Lakers superstar of "parroting communist propaganda."
In lengthy remarks to reporters Monday, James said he believes Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey "was either misinformed or not really educated on the situation" when he tweeted an image Oct. 4 that said "Fight For Freedom. Stand With Hong Kong." Morey later deleted the tweet.
"Yes, we do have freedom of speech," James said in response to a question about whether Morey should be punished for his tweet. "But at times, there are ramifications for the negative that can happen when you're not thinking about others, when you only think about yourself."
"So many people could have been harmed, not only financially but physically, emotionally, spiritually," James said during the seven-minute news conference. "Just be careful what we tweet and what we say and what we do. Even though yes, we do have freedom of speech, it can be a lot of negative that comes with it."
The social media backlash to his comments was swift and fiery.
"It's sad to see him join the chorus kowtowing to Community China & putting profits over human rights for #HongKong," Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., tweeted.
Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., tweeted directly at James' account on Twitter, accusing him of "parroting communist propaganda." The senator added, "China is running torture camps and you know it," referring to the centers where the Chinese government is thought to be detaining a million Muslim Uighurs.
Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., tweeted that James' comments were "unbelievable."
"Having just been in Hong Kong - on the streets & with the protesters - this kind of garbage is hard to take," Hawley said in a separate tweet. "LeBron, are YOU educated on 'the situation'? Why don't you go to Hong Kong? Why don't you meet the people there risking their lives for their most basic liberties[.]"
James, who has lucrative endorsement deals and a massive following in China, declined to offer his opinions on the recent political tumult in Hong Kong, a semiautonomous territory where demonstrators are rallying for sovereignty and pushing back against what they see as Beijing's outsize influence in their lives.
Morey, who has insisted he did not intend to affront anyone in China, set off a geopolitical firestorm with his tweet. The NBA attempted to distance itself from the Rockets executive, saying his tweet had "deeply offended" many of the league's fans in China, where basketball is hugely popular.
But the damage was done.
The league's Chinese partners suspended ties with the franchise, Chinese sponsors yanked their money, and Chinese television outlets said they would no longer air Rockets games.
In interviews with The Associated Press, some Hong Kong protesters charged James with hypocrisy, saying he had used his celebrity status to advocate for social justice in the United States but apparently refused to do the same for their cause.
"Please remember, all NBA players, what you said before: 'Black lives matter.' Hong Kong lives also matter," office worker William Mok, 36, said to an applauding crowd, according to the AP.
Aaron Lee, 36, a marketing director, told the AP he found it "ridiculous" that James was evidently taking the "China side" in the roiling global debate.
"He was being honest, financially," Lee said. "LeBron James stands for money. Period."
James, for his part, was forced to address the issue again Monday after Twitter lit up with infuriated responses. In a pair of tweets before the Lakers faced the Golden State Warriors in a preseason game at the Staples Center, he said:
The superstar's public comments were first since he and the Lakers returned from a weeklong tour of China, where the team played two preseason games against the Brooklyn Nets.
The consternation around the basketball icon's comments threatened to tarnish his carefully crafted public image, according to Ronn Torossian, a crisis expert and CEO of the public relations firm 5W PR.
"It is clear that he was not prepared for the backlash that would ensue, and his follow-up responses where he attempted to backpedal made him look a bit foolish," Torossian said in a statement. "It would have been better to either stick to his guns or completely retract the statement — now, he just looks like someone who bowed to the pressure of a big organization like the NBA."