LeBron James saw the criticism coming.
On Oct. 9, while in China for a series of exhibition games and in the midst of the crisis for the league created by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey's Oct. 4 tweet of support for protesters in Hong Kong, James reportedly told NBA commissioner Adam Silver that he saw little upside in speaking up about the situation when the league wouldn't.
"Morey wasn't there to answer questions," he countered. Silver hadn't spoken to the media in China, either. Why would this fall on the players to address?" ESPN reported, in paraphrase, that he said. "James told the room that it was too much for the players to take on in that moment — to explain a complicated issue with racial, socioeconomic and geopolitical layers while visitors in China," he is said to have added.
ESPN added that, in a players-only meeting, James saw canceling the press conferences as a way of protecting the players from becoming the individual focus of attention. Silver eventually relented and told the players they needn't participate in the conferences, which were eventually canceled by the Chinese government anyway.
But the moment that James returned to the States and opened his mouth, the worries that plagued him in Shanghai proved prescient.
On Tuesday evening, James said it was his belief that Morey was “either misinformed or not really educated on the situation” with the NBA and China and insisted that the Rockets general manager hadn’t properly considered the repercussions of his words. "So many people could have been harmed, not only financially but physically, emotionally, spiritually." he said. (ESPN reported earlier Tuesday that James and others had lost lucrative endorsement deals and appearances as part of the fallout.)
James clarified his comments on Twitter as well, reiterating that he wasn't talking about supporting the protesters or not, but rather the timing of Morey's statement of support, which was made while the teams were en route to China. "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."
And, as for the situation in Hong Kong itself, James still didn't have much to say at all: "I felt like with this particular situation, it was something that not only was I not informed enough about, I just felt like it was something that not only myself and my teammates or our organization had enough information to even talk about it at that point in time, and we still feel the same way."
At first blush, James comes across as craven, cynical, even — far more concerned with his own and the league’s bottom line than fundamental human rights. At worst, it seemed as if he was repackaging Chinese government propaganda about Westerners requiring a full history of the Qing Dynasty before weighing in (which, coincidentally, was the line billionaire Brooklyn Nets owner and Taiwan-born Alibaba founder Joe Tsai ran with last week).
It’s also worth noting that James was singing from the same hymnal as San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich, Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr and Warriors star Stephen Curry, all of whom claimed they lacked the knowledge to offer an opinion on the subject matter and still insisted that none of this should be seen as contradicting the NBA’s stated belief in free expression.
Still, for years, James has taken up the mantle of progressive issues, and so, yes, for many it was disappointing to see him tread so cautiously on what seems, from here, to be such a clear-cut matter of right and wrong.
But targeting James and accusing him, personally, of suborning a communist dictatorship for his inartful comments is misplaced at best — an attempt to score cheap culture war points while letting the NBA itself off the hook, according to Dr. Harry Edwards, a renowned social justice activist and professor of sociology who has served as an adviser to Colin Kaepernick, Muhammad Ali, John Carlos and Tommie Smith.
The very same people trying to dunk on him now have often had little interest in hearing about social justice causes in America — particularly when James was involved — but, suddenly, they weirdly feel like his voice is not only valued, but also required. What’s more, they seem to feel that his unwillingness to speak about the Hong Kong protesters voids all of his prior advocacy efforts, the school he built in Akron, the spotlight he’s brought on police brutality and state-sanctioned violence and his lobbying for greater gun control, according to those critics. Edwards isn’t having it: “That’s not just disingenuous, it's degenerate,” he said.
David West, who played 15 years in the NBA and currently serves as chief operating officer of the Historical Basketball League, agreed. "Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio? I, immediately I put up a red flag when those two folks are involved in anything," West said. “We’ve dumbed down the conversation to ‘LeBron is pro-China and he won’t speak out on issues in Hong Kong.'"
"There’s a lot of intellectual laziness that’s going into this,” he added
If James had, for example, launched into a diatribe about the million Muslim Uighurs being held in concentration camps (camps located in the same region in China where the NBA has set up a training center) or inveighed against the violent crackdowns on the protesters, someone sitting behind a microphone would likely have compared him to a child.
Speaking about Hong Kong and China was, as James said at the outset, a lose-lose proposition. “Either way, LeBron was going to be attacked by the ‘shut up and dribble’ crowd,” Edwards said.
Putting the focus on James also allows the NBA off the hook. The only way to avoid future instances of self-censorship and caving to the demands of an authoritarian government — as scores of other businesses have done — is if the league ditches China altogether.
With NBA China alone amassing an estimated $4 billion in value, that won’t happen any time soon, regardless of what James or any NBA employee says. Were James’ critics, particularly those on the right, engaging in anything other than bad faith, they’d have to explain why they’d never taken umbrage with the NBA’s business in China (or other nations violating human rights) at any point over the past four decades.
Doing so would require calling into question if democratic values can stand firm against the profits afforded by global capital — whether in a pro sport or any other billion-dollar industry. It’s a “walk with the devil,” as Edwards put it. “At some point you have to expect and be prepared to deal with the absolute possibility, if not certainty, that that path is going to take you through hell.”