Ever since his electric teenage debut in the NBA, LeBron James has been torn. He has wanted to be unimaginably wealthy, but he has also wanted to be a global icon like Muhammad Ali. For 16 years he walked that line remarkably well, being outspoken on issues of racism, police violence, and education while also amassing enormous wealth. He has managed to become that rarest of commodities: the activist mogul. Yet this tension is a delicate one, ready to crack like an egg at the slightest pressure. Muhammad Ali of course is a global icon for what he sacrificed, not for what he earned. LeBron this morning has yolk all over his face, and washing it off will not be easy.
For those just waking up to the news, LeBron was asked before a Lakers exhibition game for his thoughts about the NBA’s relationship with China and the tweet by Houston GM Daryl Morey in support of Hong Kong protesters that has set that relationship aflame. LeBron had days to come up with a smooth answer. Instead, he clumsily thundered into the lane, more JaVale McGee than Donovan Mitchell. He said, “I don’t want to get into a word or sentence feud with Daryl Morey, but I believe he wasn’t educated on the situation at hand, and he spoke, and so many people could have been harmed, not only financially, but physically. Emotionally. Spiritually. So just be careful what we tweet and what we say, and what we do.”
This was, to put it mildly, a disappointing response. LeBron, of course,has his own major business interests in China, from a multitude of endorsements to his lifetime deal with Nike and its archipelago of Chinese sweatshops. He also has a movie coming out, the long-awaited Space Jam 2, with major box-office potential overseas, given the literally hundreds of millions of Chinese basketball fans.
The immediate perception of course was that LeBron was protecting those business interests at the expense of the Hong Kong protesters and Morey’s right to free expression. Condemnation of LeBron has arisen from all corners. Many reposted a tweet he sent in 2018 that read, “Injustice Anywhere Is A Threat To Justice Everywhere- Our Lives Begin To End The Day We Become Silent About Things That Matter- Martin Luther King Jr.”
The online platform LIHKG, used by Hong Kong’s protesters, has a post, according to The Hollywood Reporter, with the MLK quote and the plea, “MLK fought for civil rights, but LeBron James supports totalitarianism?”
Another simply reads, “LeBron has been bought.”
LeBron attempted to temper the damage with two tweets. “Let me clear up the confusion,” he wrote in one of his posts. “I do not believe there was any consideration for the consequences and ramifications of the tweet. I’m not discussing the substance. Others can talk about that…. My team and this league just went through a difficult week. I think people need to understand what a tweet or statement can do to others.”
It is certainly true that the NBA teams that were just in Shanghai—LeBron’s Lakers played the Brooklyn Nets there—had a difficult week. But as protesters in Hong Kong have answered back, their weeks and months have been far more difficult.
One of the tragedies of the last 24 hours is more than just the tarnishing of LeBron’s persona as a progressive icon. It’s also that the worst actors in our politics—the very people who have long been looking to defame James for his stances on racism and police violence—are dunking on his head. Denunciations have rolled in from the Drudge Report, to droves of right-wing trolls, to Missouri Senator Josh Hawley, who brayed about his own time in Hong Kong, where he protested for liberties he refuses to support at home.
As sports journalist Howard Bryant tweeted, in chiding James, “Take the time. Learn. Read. Understand. Do these things especially if your business relationships are going to put you in conflict with your values. We’re all compromised in this game of corporate globalization. LeBron fell for the celebrity trap, talking when he needed to listen.”
Bryant also tweeted, quite correctly, “Of course, if we’re really scoring at home, this country doesn’t really care about human rights, either. It does business with China, it sacrificed black people at home with Jim Crow and abroad in South Africa. It barely punished its Saudi biz partners over the Khashoggi murder.”
He could have added 1,000 other examples of the United States’ siding with oppressors over espoused virtues of peace and justice, from Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians to our government’s own silence on both Hong Kong and the horrific oppression of China’s Muslim Uighur community. It is China’s status as a competitor that makes it a target for its civil rights abuses, but that doesn’t make its abuses any less real.
There is of course this country’s broader hypocrisy with regard to China, a complicity that surfaces on Capitol Hill and in the shoes on our feet. The sneakers we wear and the smart phones on which we are tweeting our anger at LeBron were manufactured in China. LeBron is more complicit only by a matter of degree. But, unlike the rest of us, he has a mammoth platform to make a difference, and that is what is so frustrating for those of us who don’t.
I e-mailed Ryan Jones, who wrote the first biography of LeBron James, 2005’s King James: Believe the Hype—The LeBron James Story, and has been following his career for two decades. He said to me, “One thing I think back to whenever LeBron’s social awareness and activism are in the news is the first time he was really put on the spot about an issue—the news of John Amaechi’s coming out back in 2007. LeBron was asked about it, and had a pretty dumb answer about how a gay teammate wouldn’t be trustworthy, which was bad then and obviously looks much worse now. I remember at the time wondering how fair it was to expect a 22-year-old who never went to college and grew up in the environment he did to have an empathetic take on an issue like that.
“Flash forward 12 years, and he’s obviously come a long way. Like a lot of people, his views have evolved in mostly promising ways, and he’s also generally been really savvy about how he talks about issues. That obviously didn’t happen here, and it’s disappointing mostly because this seems much less about a young, uninformed guy than it does about a businessman making a strategic choice based on his bottom line. That can’t be surprising—his business ambitions are no secret—but it’s still frustrating to hear. The other thing I can’t get past is how awful it is that his most vocal critics on this are guys like Trump-endorsed Missouri senator Josh Hawley. The idea that LeBron’s getting hammered by ‘pro-democracy’ Republicans who are enabling an autocratic takeover of their own country is obviously disgusting, but I guess probably appropriate given the state of things.”
LeBron can still make this right. He can do so by listening to others, engaging in the issues, and saying something in support of human rights. He could follow the example of Muhammad Ali and say that he will not condemn human rights violations overseas until first calling out human rights abuses here at home, particularly in the case of black people being shot by police in their homes.
It’s certainly easy for us to say that this is what he should have done. It’s easy for us—to use a mixed sports metaphor—to Monday-morning quarterback and graft our own progressive dreams on what we wish LeBron would or could have said. But he didn’t. And as King James is learning, heavy is the head that wears the crown.