There’s a lot of argle-bargle in LeBron’s clean-up statements from Tuesday, and more than a little smarm about his I Promise School in Akron, but the gist is this: He resents being put in a position where he has to answer questions about a thorny political situation halfway around the world, and would very much prefer to move off the topic and back to standard basketball stuff.
The point LeBron seems to want to make, more than any other, is that Morey wasn’t sufficiently invested in the conflict between Hong Kong protesters and the authoritarian Chinese government to call down this level of chaos on the entire league and everyone in it. It’s a line of criticism Morey invited with his own weak-ass apology, when he said he’d merely voiced “one thought, based on one interpretation, of one complicated event,” and had subsequently benefited from the opportunity “to hear and consider other perspectives.” The implication is that Morey both underestimated the backlash his tweet would receive from a wildly defensive China, and lacked a complete understanding of the various perspectives involved. Morey’s backpedaling seems to have formed the basis for players’ concerns that there’d be stiff penalties from the league for such careless commentary from one of their own. LeBron hit Adam Silver with exactly this line of questioning during an emergency meeting in China, according to a report from ESPN’s Dave McMenamin:
His question was related to Morey — and the commissioner’s handling of the Rockets’ GM. James, to paraphrase, told Silver he knew that if a player caused the same type of uproar from something he said or tweeted, the player wouldn’t be able to skate on it. There would be some type of repercussion. So, James wanted to know, what was Silver going to do about it in Morey’s case?
It’s not entirely fair that NBA players are being asked to clean up an international public relations mess caused by an executive, while Silver, the league’s owners, and Morey himself mostly duck the heat. And every time a player tries to thread the needle required by the league’s queasy business interests—maintaining the league’s popular progressive sheen stateside while securing future basketball income by softening the fury of a vengeful Chinese government—they take criticism from either side or both, over a conflict most of them probably don’t understand too well. For every fair criticism of LeBron or James Harden over what amounts to disavowing a colleague for having an inconvenient opinion about something outside of their comfort zone, there are 400 dipshit MAGA ghouls leaping quite a bit too eagerly to call them communists.
There was no getting this exactly right—according to McMenamin, even after Silver resolved to keep those players who were on the ground in China away from the media, the Chinese government swooped in and canceled pre- and post-game media availability, which left open the possibility that players might have otherwise had something to say on the matter. While those who’d happily bought the idea of NBA players as progressive champions were waiting for courageous, thoughtful defenses of Morey’s right to speak his mind, the players overseas were mostly stewing over having to answer to a het-up foreign press for someone else’s tweet.
Turns out, most of the players do not have much to say about the tug of war over Hong Kong’s autonomy, LeBron included. But there’s an important difference between having nothing to say about Chinese authoritarianism and the nuances of Hong Kong’s limited home-rule, versus reflexively condemning someone who does have something to say on the matter, because those comments fuck with your wallet.
LeBron legitimately has had thoughtful or noteworthy things to say about matters close to home, and if he lacks even a layman’s understanding of the situation between Hong Kong and China, he has that in common with probably 100 million or more fellow Americans. It’s fine to have no comment; holding your tongue when you don’t feel confident in your grasp of the facts is fine.
Restraint is good. More people should try it.
But where LeBron failed Monday, and where he has continued to fail, is in lazily joining up with the enforcement arm of China’s campaign against critical speech, out of nothing more than knee-jerk self-interest.
If it’s true that Morey didn’t consider enough the likely consequences of banging out a dipshit slogan 10 days ago, then it’s also true that LeBron didn’t consider enough the bedfellow he was taking when he finally came down the mountain.
For whatever his faults may be (not being on your favorite team, hubris, brazenly studying the room without trying to hide it, etc.), LeBron James has consistently been a voice of progressive reason, but he has also been relentlessly acquisitive. Thus, no one ought to be nearly so surprised, shocked, or offended that he wanted to protect any personal financial impact from the NBA’s China Syndrome. After all, he may want to own a franchise someday, and besides, all the other principals were trying to protect their own as well.
This is in direct opposition to the Chinese government, which has held, currently hold and will continue to hold all the cards here. In a room full of gamblers, China is the house.
(To those who want a strident defense of the interests of the Hong Kong protestors here, please take it as implied. Geopolitics aren’t nearly so complicated if you view the world’s issues as matters of right or wrong based on even the most elemental moral and ethical base.)
Enter money and power, though, and it all goes to hell, because while the species can do the moral and ethical thing, it always seem to prefer the cash and the big chair because, well, it’s easier. In this case, the NBA wants access to China’s population and the money and influence that reasonably should flow from same, but to get it, the league has been forced to acknowledge that the Chinese supply includes Chinese demands. That’s how Daryl Morey got caught in a trap nobody foresaw—expressing mild indignation about the plight of pro-Democracy protestors and getting the back of everyone’s hand in a mad scramble to keep the Chinese from closing their borders to the basketball and the money that basketball can generate.
From the moment Morey tweeted out his message of support for the Hong Kong protestors, everyone not in the Chinese government scrambled to figure out how they could have a bad situation both ways. Adam Silver wanted to look like the progressive commissioner but worked for 30 billionaires who could give zero rats’ hindquarters about progressive causes. Tilman Fertitta wanted to defend Morey while shaming him publicly. Morey wanted to express his feelings while apologizing for expressing his feelings. Brooklyn owner Joe Tsai wanted a piece of the Chinese business that Fertitta was benefiting from while trying not to seem like he wanted the business. The players who met with Silver wanted to know why they had to explain the league’s position without having any say in the league’s position, and then wanted to know if there was a player who could jeopardize the business as they perceived Morey had and not be fired.
Enter LeBron, who happens to be the answer to that last question.
James’s choice of the word “misinformed” in reference to Morey has been the firing point, but it’s the one thing that Morey isn’t. He understood enough about the Hong Kong problem because he has friends who live there, and tweeted in support of their concerns. This doesn’t make him Johnny Politics, but he gets the issue more than your average league employee.
The word James needed to employ was “naive,” because everyone has been naive on this from the jump. The reality is that there is no real halfway point between being progressive and being pragmatic when it comes to billions of dollars today and in the future unless one also employs the word “facile,” which is how everyone has tried to play this, including James. They’ve taken simple chess and tried to create a draw in which they look principled and obedient simultaneously because they view that as the only way to save the money, which is naive. And, we should add, transparently yet blandly cynical. They can’t take both sides simultaneously because the two positions are in direct opposition to each other. James picked a side, and that side was rooted in self-interest.
LeBron did business, and ethics and progress will have to wait. The player everyone (unsoundly) viewed as the soundest progressive in the most progressive company chose the path of less resistance because pragmatism is what you do when the right thing may cause discomfort.
The Chinese government is not naive. It requires silence on Chinese political choices from its business partners as though they were Chinese citizens, and the NBA has offered just that. It has gagged its employees, or made it clear that speaking out is going to have consequences, so James taking the company line is actually going to be viewed as acceptable speech by the power-drivers with whom he will be spending his post-basketball career. He did what everyone in the NBA is trying to do: have enough from all sides to conflate self-interest and statesmanship.
He will fail, because this is a moment that forces a choice.
Protestors in Hong Kong have burned LeBron James jerseys after the NBA star said that freedom of speech can lead to “a lot of negative”.
James made his comments after the fallout between the NBA and China over the anti-government protests in Hong Kong. The lucrative relationship between the league and China has been damaged since the Houston Rockets general manager, Daryl Morey, tweeted in support of the protestors earlier this month. Morey subsequently deleted the tweet but China has threatened to cut ties with the NBA, and some Chinese companies have backed out of broadcasts and sponsorship deals.
On Tuesday, a group of around 200 gathered on courts amid Hong Kong’s high-rise buildings, chanting support for Morey and obscene epithets about James. One person threw a ball at a photo of James while others burned and trampled on jerseys bearing his name.
“People are angry,” said James Lo, a web designer who runs a Hong Kong basketball fan page on Facebook. He said he’s already received a video from a protester that showed him burning a No 23 jersey bearing James’ name.
On Monday, James was asked about the strained relationship between the NBA and China. “I don’t want to get into a … feud with Daryl but I believe he wasn’t educated about the situation at hand and he spoke,” James said. “Just be careful what we tweet … even though, yes, we do have freedom of speech. But there can be a lot of negative that comes with that too.” James later said he meant Morey wasn’t educated on the repercussions of the tweet rather than the situation in Hong Kong. Law enforcement have used live ammunition on civilians after months of demonstrations in Hong Kong.
Lo said James’s comments had infuriated many in Hong Kong. “Students, they come out like every weekend,” said Lo. “They’ve got tear gassed and then they got gun-shot, like every weekend. Police beating students and then innocent people, like every day. And then he just comes up with something [like] that. We just can’t accept that.”
NBA players weren’t made available before or after recent pre-season games in China, which CCTV didn’t broadcast, and several companies and state-run offices reportedly severed their ties with the NBA over Morey’s tweet and the league’s response to it.
Protesters said James was guilty of double standards, because he has used his influence as a star athlete to promote social causes in the United States. “Please remember, all NBA players, what you said before: ‘Black lives matter.’ Hong Kong lives also matter!” one of the protesters, 36-year-old office worker William Mok, said as he addressed the crowd.
Yahoo Sports estimates that the dispute with China could depress the league’s salary cap – and therefore NBA wages – by up to 15% next season.
Some protestors thought James’s comments had more to do with money than politics. “James was trying, you know, to take a side, on the China side, which is like ridiculous,” said Aaron Lee, a 36-year-old marketing director. “He was being honest, financially. Financial is money. Simple as that. LeBron James stands for money. Period.”