LeBron James finally spoke on Monday about the outsized controversy surrounding Daryl Morey’s deleted tweet supporting pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. LeBron’s position was weak and transparently cynical, and he took a justified beating for sharing it, and ultimately spent part of his Monday night trying to clean things up. After making another half-hearted effort on that front Tuesday afternoon, LeBron says he is now resolved to discuss the matter no further.
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. Pro-democracy protesters resisting the powerful reach of a repressive totalitarian regime burned his jersey in Hong Kong on Tuesday, while chanting their appreciation for Morey. It wasn’t because they were “misinformed.”