Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James has tipped off a slew of controversy over his criticism of a quickly retracted tweet by Daryl Morey, general manager of the Houston Rockets, in support of Hong Kong demonstrators that upset Chinese leaders and threatened the NBA’s expanding business interests there.
James himself maintained in two tweets yesterday that he was questioning the timing, but not necessarily the substance, of Morey’s sentiments, which came as James and other players were touring the country last week.
“On Monday night, James suggested that Morey was ‘misinformed’ about the ongoing tensions between China and Hong Kong and that he didn't ‘think through’ the tweet, which caused ‘harm’ to people,” Joseph A. Wulfsohn writes for Fox News.
“‘I'm not here to judge how the league handled the situation,’ he told reporters. ‘I just think that when you’re misinformed or you’re not educated about something -- and I’m just talking about the tweet itself -- you never know the ramifications that can happen. We all see what that did, not only did for our league but for all of us in America, for people in China as well,’” James said.
James “was denounced immediately, particularly across social media. It was an unusual position for one of the most popular athletes in the world. Multiple lawmakers, including Rick Scott and Josh Hawley -- two Republican senators -- criticized James for seemingly blaming Morey for the Chinese government’s actions. Even a fellow player, Enes Kanter, a center for the Boston Celtics known to be politically outspoken, posted tweets that appeared to be directed toward James without naming him. One said: “FREEDOM IS NOT FREE,” Sopan Deb writes for The New York Times.
“LeBron James was once told to shut up and dribble. He didn’t like it. Nor should he have,” writes Shawn Windsor for the Detroit Free Press in an “open letter” to the basketball star.
“‘I get to sit up here and talk about social injustice,’ he said, responding to comments from Fox News’ Laura Ingraham in 2018, a right-wing opinion-maker who didn’t like James’ description of President Trump as ‘laughable’ and ‘scary.’
“‘We will definitely not shut up and dribble,’ James promised. And he hasn’t. Which is why his words Monday night felt like a gut punch to so many who’ve admired his dedication to social justice,” Windsor continues.
Meanwhile, “Hong Kong protesters on Tuesday trampled LeBron James jerseys and gathered in a semicircle to watch one burn,” according to CBS News’s Jonathan Vigliotti.
“The protesters chanted support for Morey and said James’ comments ‘smacked of a double standard because he's used his clout as a sports headliner to press for social causes in the U.S.,’"according to an AP dispatch accompanying Vigliotti’s on-camera report.
But others had James’ back.
“‘This is not the time to try to crucify LeBron’s character. We all know who LeBron is.’ That's ex-NBA player Stephen Jackson going to bat for his pal, LeBron James ... telling TMZ Sports Bron ain't the kowtowing sellout some people are making him out to be.”
TMZ Sports also aired support for James from ex-NBAer Al Harrington. Several ESPN personalities also defended James on air, Fox News’ Wulfsohn reports.
Meanwhile, James’ brand sponsors “are staying mum amid [the] firestorm,” writes Tamar Lapin for the New York Post.
“James, who also has deals with Coca-Cola (Sprite), Beats By Dre and luxury luggage company Rimowa, has gone all in on Chinese markets and traveled to the communist country on behalf of Nike, with whom he has a lifetime endorsement deal worth more than $1 billion. But on Tuesday, the sneaker and apparel brand didn’t respond to multiple requests for comments about James’ statements,” Lapin reports.
The issue is clearly broader than James and the NBA in these polarized times.
“Chief executives are taking vocal stands on issues like gun control, climate change and immigration, but global affairs bring a different complexity and calculation, especially for companies doing business in China,” Rachel Feintzeig and Lauren Weber write for The Wall Street Journal.
“The NBA isn’t the only organization that has run afoul of the Chinese government. Apple Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google both recently removed apps associated with Hong Kong’s antigovernment protests from their digital stores after taking heat from Chinese officials,” they continue.
“‘Executives have to thread a needle when a company’s commercial and financial interests clash with the CEO’s personal values and the cultural values of an enterprise and its home country,’ said Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, a leadership expert at the Yale School of Management. ‘One of the rarely discussed downsides of globalization is you get caught in those crosscurrents,’ he said.”