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LeBron James' China comments put the NBA's social justice hypocrisy on full display


No one else said it quite so bluntly

Al Bello/Getty Images

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2018, LeBron James tweeted "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter," a mashup of a paraphrase and a quote from the civil rights leader.

Monday, LeBron James' life began to end as he rambled his way through an embarrassing, cowardly, tone-deaf answer about the NBA's current conflict with China over a team executive's pro-Hong Kong tweet; an answer that exposed, in the most blatant way possible, that social justice is only important in the NBA when it doesn't cost anything.

James has been publicly silent over the past week regarding Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey's tweet, which contained an image with the words, "Fight for freedom. Stand with Hong Kong." The Chinese government has taken great offense to the tweet, jeopardizing the NBA's lucrative business relationship with the communist nation, as well as individual players' endorsement deals.

In James' comments about the controversy, he didn't talk about justice or human rights. He talked about how inconsiderate it was for Morey to support democracy in Hong Kong with a tweet that could have cost James and other players money.

"So many people could have been harmed," James said — speaking of Morey's tweet, not of the violence being inflicted on protesters by police in Hong Kong, or the heinous human rights violations that occur in mainland China. "Not only financially, but physically, emotionally, spiritually. So just be careful what we tweet and what we say."

Later, seemingly trying to justify his answer, James tweeted about how difficult this week has been for him and his colleagues. James and the Los Angeles Lakers, as well as the Brooklyn Nets, were on a preseason tour in China when the Morey controversy began. How could Morey not have waited a week to send his tweet, so as to not make LeBron James uncomfortable?

There are some players (Enes Kanter, for example) who walk the talk when it comes to speaking out for human rights and justice. But, by-and-large, the biggest casualty in the China/NBA spat is the NBA's credibility on social justice.

In 2018, CNN Business published a piece titled, "The NBA is not afraid to lead on social justice."

James is prominently highlighted in the article as a social justice leader. He has spoken out against police violence against minorities. He's worn T-shirts to support Black Lives Matter. He called President Donald Trump a "bum."

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, one of the few league figures whose cowardice on this issue has exceeded James', is quoted speaking of the "sense of obligation, social responsibility, a desire to speak up directly about issues that are important" that is "part of being an NBA player."

The NBA has been contrasted with the NFL: While the latter allegedly blackballs former quarterback Colin Kaepernick for kneeling during the national anthem, NBA players are free and willing to "fully participate as citizens."

"I think in this day and age, you really have to stand for something," Silver said in the CNN article. Silver's great civil rights accomplishment is pulling the 2017 NBA All-Star Game from Charlotte because of the state's transgender bathroom law.

But when it comes to China, when it comes to speaking out against a communist nation that oppresses its people and opposes the values of freedom that we in America view as fundamental rights, the NBA stands for nothing but its own business interests.

The players and executives who make millions of dollars selling shoes and apparel and TV contracts in China, the same players and executives who have no problem insulting the U.S. president, won't dare speak a word that might offend the Chinese. The price is too high. Can't do anything that might slow down sales of the new LeBron James Nike shoe in China.

Expecting professional athletes to be role models and community leaders has always been naive. Being good at sports doesn't necessarily qualify a person for anything except playing sports.

Still, we live in a society that elevates these stars and pushes their words in our faces on a wide range of important issues. And more power to them, if they use their platforms for good. I'm not among those who believes players have to "shut up and dribble."

But the next time LeBron James, or anyone else associated with the NBA, tries to lecture the public about justice, remember what they did when faced with an issue that might cost them something. And remember a quote from Dr. King that you won't find on James' Twitter page:

"Freedom has always been an expensive thing. History is fit testimony to the fact that freedom is rarely gained without sacrifice and self-denial."

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