LeBron James has been silent on the matter of China throwing a massive temper tantrum over Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeting and deleting a limp slogan in support of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. With the NBA spasming and losing bowel control around him, the world’s most visible basketball player managed to go more than a week without so much as uttering a “no comment” on record, which is no small feat. LeBron broke that silence Monday night, and in a way that perfectly captures the NBA’s own queasy, craven, profit-driven equivocation on the subject.
“We all talk about this freedom of speech—yes, we all do have freedom of speech, but at times there are ramifications for the negative, that can happen, um, when you’re not thinking about others, or you’re only thinking about yourself. So, I don’t believe—I don’t want to get into a word or a sentence feud with Daryl, 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, what we say, and what we do, even though, yes, we do have freedom of speech, but there can be a lot of negative that comes with that, too.”
At first blush it sounds very much like LeBron bought into Joseph Tsai’s bullshit—probably because it’s a convenient way of avoiding commenting directly on the conflict between protestors and the Chinese government—and when he says “educated,” he means that Morey is not sufficiently knowledgeable about the Qing dynasty to have feelings about Hong Kong protestors having their eyeballs shot out by cops. Just to reiterate the point, you absolutely do not need to know any Chinese history whatsoever to support the prerogative of citizens of a semi-autonomous state to resist authoritarian rule. For that matter, Daryl Morey could have a PhD in Chinese History and have based his seven-word tweet on an intimate knowledge of the geopolitical nuances of the conflict, and it would not have reduced by one iota the ferocity of the Chinese response.
But it turns out LeBron’s comments reflect a particularly cynical kind of pragmatism. The “thinking about others” part can be understood to mean that livelihoods—in particular, the livelihoods of members of the NBPA—are affected by a conflict of this magnitude with an entity in control of as much basketball revenue as the Chinese government. This is a real thing—at least one agent told Hoops Hype’s Alex Kennedy that a hit to the NBA’s salary cap is “inevitable” in the wake of China pulling its business. The longer the NBA and China are on the outs, the greater the potential harm to player salaries. LeBron is probably right, in this one respect: Morey probably had not considered what the utter loss of Chinese cash might mean for basketball-related income, and how that might depress future player earnings.
But allowing that calculus to form the basis for decisions about political speech is accepting that all speech is ultimately subject to the approval of those wielding financial might. Worse, it’s an affirmative argument that everyone everywhere should capitulate whenever their politics are in conflict with those in power, which is a breathtakingly cowardly position to hold, let alone to advocate on behalf of. If nothing else, these remarks give a pretty gruesome view of the thought process behind LeBron’s general social and political outspokenness, and suggest that LeBron only takes public stances that he perceives as safe and commercially viable. Which is probably true! But it’s also probably not something LeBron wants to make known.
Upon immediately realizing that his comments were not being received favorably, LeBron made an effort to ensure they were understood as narrowly as possible, with a vague gesture at the fact that a few NBA teams were traveling in China around the time of Morey’s tweet.
Needless to say, it’s more than a little weak for LeBron to suggest a threat of physical danger at the hands of a vengeful totalitarian government as the substance of his criticism of a tweet supporting protesters who are rejecting the rule of that same government (also, if NBA players are put in genuine danger by a single tweet while in China, that seems like a pretty good reason for the NBA to not send players to China in the first place).
This is another hideous reminder, amid a fucking onslaught of daily reminders, of just how easy it is to gather an army of apologists and defenders, even from among the relatively powerful, if you have lots of money, a habit of making enemies, and the will to use your money against them.