A group of fans held signs, wore shirts and chanted support for Hong Kong and Tibet in the Brooklyn Nets’ first game since returning from China
We are shortchanging athletes’ activism by using sound bites to define their legacies.
On Dec. 29, 2015, James stood in front of reporters after his Cleveland Cavaliers beat the Denver Nuggets 93-87 and spoke on the death of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old African American boy carrying a toy gun who was shot and killed by Cleveland police. It was a mere 24 hours after a grand jury decided that police officer Timothy Loehmann would not face criminal charges for gunning down Rice.
“To be honest, I haven’t really been on top of this issue. So it’s hard for me to comment. I understand that any lives that [are] lost, what we want more than anything is prayer and the best for the family, for anyone,” James told reporters. “But for me to comment on the situation, I don’t have enough knowledge about it.”
Samaria Rice, the mother of the boy, expressed her disappointment. Even black activists demanded more from James. Black journalists challenged him to say something substantial. But that’s where the outrage stopped — at the feet of black folks who wanted him to use his platform to defend a child who was killed miles from James’ old neighborhood.
How did we go from James getting a pass for being noncommittal about the killing of a 12-year-old boy to being called a disgrace for his comments on a foreign government? The answer is complicated.
Three years after his comments on Rice, James rattled the internet for what he didn’t say about protests in Hong Kong when a pool of reporters asked him about it on Monday night. “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,” James explained. His refusal to condemn China became a trending topic through the night.
But here’s the dirty little secret: Most of the people outraged at James not taking a definitive stance on China’s handling of protesters in Hong Kong don’t care about the protesters themselves. The outrage isn’t about the plight of the protesters. The performative outrage is creating a new “what aboutism” to hold up next time the athletes speak out about a cause.
If James tweets about a black person being killed by cops, you can bet his silence on China will be brought up. Because silencing black folks is all about false equivalencies and bogus narratives. In short, “you didn’t speak about Hong Kong” is the newfangled “what about Chicago?”
How did we go from James getting a pass for being noncommittal about the killing of a 12-year-old boy to being called a disgrace for his comments on a foreign government?
The answer is complicated. This is about the ways in which society tries to undermine black liberation work by using any means to shift goalposts. There are plenty of people using the NBA’s current public relations dilemma with China as a means to undermine the social justice efforts of black athletes in America. So James’ vague comments on Rice’s death must stand alongside his other works.
Since 2015, he’s become a leading advocate for social justice, calling out President Donald Trump and the NFL while building a school for at-risk kids in Akron, Ohio. He’s not the safe athlete anymore. He’s rubbing people the wrong way. His actions have even prompted Fox News host Laura Ingraham to tell him and other athletes to “stick to sports.”
Now, however, the NBA and China situation is a “gotcha” moment to those who want to silence NBA players. The premise of the criticism is clear: If these athletes won’t stand up for the rights of the citizens of Hong Kong, then they don’t really care about equality and human rights.
It’s a veiled “don’t all lives matter?” form of reshaping the narrative to negate the actions of speaking up for black folks in America. After all, how can they really care about police brutality in America if they don’t care about it in China? See how that narrative manipulation works?
The irony here is that athletes are being encouraged to speak out about oppression in China, but if they were to use that energy to, say, draw a comparison between the way the protesters of Hong Kong are being treated to the way protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, were treated, then we’d be back at square one asking them to be silent. We want these athletes to speak out against foreign regimes but not about police abuse of innocent black folks.
How about we try this: Interview an athlete about China, but follow up with something to say about police killing Botham Jean or Atatiana Jefferson. Then we’ll see how much you want athletes to speak up.
LeBron James had more than nine days to study the conflict between China and the NBA and formulate an opinion. What he finally said was disappointing for a man who is “more than an athlete” and built much of his brand on social justice and awareness.
On Oct. 4, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted support for protesters in Hong Kong who say they are seeking to hold China to its promises to protect certain freedoms. China characterizes the protests as rebellion against its sovereignty. Hong Kong has seen increased violence between demonstrators and police during four months of protests sparked by China’s attempt to legalize extradition from the semiautonomous territory to mainland China.
The context for all this is China’s treatment of its own citizens, which according to Human Rights Watch includes “arbitrary detention, imprisonment, and enforced disappearance”; persecution of religious communities; censorship of the media and public speech; and the mass detention and torture of Turkic Muslims.
These are all topics that the LeBron James we’ve come to know would care about.
When Morey sent his tweet, James and his Los Angeles Lakers were headed to play two exhibitions in China, which is a $500 million market for the NBA. China also is an essential partner for Nike, which employs James under a $1 billion lifetime contract, and a key market for James’ growing TV and film empire. (The Undefeated is an ESPN platform; ESPN and its parent company Disney have various business relationships in China.)
China responded to Morey’s tweet with the cancellation of both Lakers-Brooklyn Nets broadcasts and several NBA community events, and the suspension of a smartphone company’s NBA sponsorship. Also suspended were the Rockets’ TV broadcasts, its relationship with the Chinese Basketball Association, and its online news and game streaming deals. NBA commissioner Adam Silver tried to mollify China while standing up for the principle of free speech. The response from Chinese state broadcaster CCTV: “We’re strongly dissatisfied and oppose Adam Silver’s claim to support Morey’s right to freedom of expression. We believe that any remarks that challenge national sovereignty and social stability are not within the scope of freedom of speech.”
On Monday, this is what James told reporters before the Lakers game:
“When I speak about something, I speak about something I’m very knowledgeable about, something I’m very passionate about. I feel like with this particular situation, it was something not only I was not informed enough about, I just felt like it was something that not only myself or my teammates or my organization had enough information to even talk about it at that point in time and we still feel the same way.”
That’s implausible. As if James couldn’t get any historian, diplomat or other China expert on the phone in the nine days since Morey’s tweet. As if there is no Google.
What makes this sadder is that Chinese citizens have no Google. It’s blocked.
James doesn’t need to denounce or boycott China, no more than Walmart, Coca-Cola or the NBA should. We all use Chinese products every day, and that relationship creates more opportunities for change. If James had simply said, “No comment because I do big business in China,” at least that would have been honest. Or he could have courageously affirmed the principle of human rights while expressing respect for China’s people and sovereignty.
Instead, James said Morey was “misinformed or not really educated on the situation,” which would be hard for James to judge after just claiming he was not informed himself. (Later Monday night, James tweeted that he was referring to the consequences of Morey’s tweet, not the substance.)
James also said that “social media is not always the proper way to go about things,” which is hypocritical for a man whose primary means of engaging with fans, building his brand and calling out injustice are Instagram and Twitter.
“We all talk about freedom of speech,” James told reporters, “Yes, we do have freedom of speech, but at times there are ramifications for the negative that can happen when you are not thinking about others and only thinking about yourself.”
Morey has been silent since deleting his tweet, but he was likely thinking about millions of Hong Kong residents. Morey had nothing to personally gain. James, on the other hand, had his business empire to think about when he implausibly claimed ignorance on all things China. Besides basketball games and shoes, James will be selling his upcoming Space Jam reboot, which could earn nine figures in the nation that James has chosen not to be informed about.
I respect and appreciate James’ activism for social and racial justice, which began in 2012 when he and his Miami Heat teammates tweeted a photo supporting slain teenager Trayvon Martin. In many ways, that photo launched the current resurgence of black athlete activism. Back when Trayvon’s shameful killing gave rise to Black Lives Matter, few top athletes engaged in racial advocacy, fearful that fans would stop watching or buying. James had something to lose when he and his team were photographed in hoodies, but he did what was right. That’s part of what makes his China comments more hypocritical and disappointing.
I’m not one of the critics who want to silence James on racial justice, who want him to “shut up and dribble.” I believe in James’ proclamation that he’s “more than an athlete.” This is his time to be that, to fully inhabit the activist legacy of a Muhammad Ali or an Arthur Ashe. James once had the gumption to call out Donald Trump in a tweet, and the president stayed silent — Trump “did not want it with the King.” Now James is cowed by Xi Jinping? Or maybe he should be leery of the Chinese president ruthless enough to disappear Winnie the Pooh.
James’ voice is so influential, he could help crack the great wall of silence that China has erected against dissent. If James chose to speak on China, how many athletes would follow, as they did after Trayvon? Or do we expect that human rights will never come to China?
On Tuesday, James followed up on his previous comments by basically saying that China is not his problem: “I also don’t think every issue should be everybody’s problem as well. When things come up, there’s multiple things that we haven’t talked about that have happened in our own country that we don’t bring up. There’s things that happen in my own community in trying to help my kids graduate high school and go off to college; that’s been my main concern the last couple of years with my school [in Akron, Ohio]. Trying to make sure the inner-city kids that grow up in my hometown can have a brighter future and look at me as an inspiration to get out of the hellhole of the inner city.
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“We don’t talk about those stories enough. We want to talk about so many other things as well. There’s issues all over the world.”
James’ admirable efforts to educate his hometown’s children have received massive media coverage, including from me. And helping Akron should not prevent him from talking about Chinese issues. Nor should China’s distance from Akron. Based on one of James’ own tweets, he should understand why.
On Jan. 15, 2018, James quoted Martin Luther King Jr.’s immortal Letter from Birmingham Jail in a tweet, adding the hashtag #ThankYouMLK50. King wrote that letter in 1963, after being arrested for protesting segregation laws in Birmingham, Alabama. While King was behind bars, a group of Christian and Jewish clergy released a statement calling him an “outsider” engaged in “unwise and untimely” demonstrations.
“I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states,” King wrote. “I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”
Yes, LeBron James is an American, and he admirably addresses American problems. But China makes and buys his shoes, watches his games and movies, puts untold millions in his pockets. China is James’ country too.
The world has become much smaller in the five decades since King wrote his magnificent letter.
The economies of China and America would suffer without each other. A game perfected by black Americans enraptures millions of Chinese. King wrote, “I too am compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my particular hometown.” James can do the same. He still has time to realize that claiming ignorance of repression in a country where he makes millions of dollars contradicts the calls for justice he has championed at more convenient times.