Basketball superstar LeBron James has added fuel to the fire of the controversy engulfing the NBA over its self-censorship in line with China’s political interests — just as China appeared poised to quietly move toward defusing the issue with a resumption of online streaming for most games after a ban last week.
James was criticized Tuesday for appearing to toe Beijing’s party line after he said the Houston Rockets’ general manager, Daryl Morey, should have kept quiet instead of tweeting a message last week in support of Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters that angered Beijing.
“I don’t want to get into a feud with Daryl, but I believe he wasn’t educated on the situation at hand and he spoke,” James said in an interview upon his return to Los Angeles after a China tour. “Yes, we all have freedom of speech, but at times there are ramifications for the negative that can happen when you’re not thinking about others and you’re only thinking about yourself.”
The NBA has seen 12 of its 25 sponsorship deals with Chinese companies canceled or suspended in the wake of Morey’s tweet. James has a lucrative lifetime endorsement deal with Nike, which counts China as an enormous key market. He also is the star and producer of Warner Bros.’ $100 million “Space Jam 2,” which is set to hit theaters in 2021 and will certainly be seeking to do big business in the Middle Kingdom.
“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,” James said before hitting the court for a pre-season game against the Golden State Warriors.
HIs remarks quickly sparked intense criticism in the U.S. from fans and politicians, with Republican senator Ben Sasse tweeting at him, “You’re parroting communist propaganda. China is running torture camps and you know it.” The reference is to the up to 1 million ethnic Uighurs, who are mostly Muslim, who are reportedly locked up in secretive internment camps in western China, ostensibly for political “re-education.”
Following the backlash, James tried to clarify his comments, appearing to say that it was the potential fallout of his tweet rather than the actual protests themselves that Morey “wasn’t educated” about.
“Let me clear up the confusion. 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,” James said. He added that the timing of Morey’s tweet gave him and his teammates “a difficult week.”
Twitter users quickly responded with indignation, asking him if he’d asked whether detained Uighurs or others politically persecuted by China were having a “difficult week,” or reminding him of once having tweeted a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr., that “our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
On the Chinese Internet, however, James was hailed, with hashtags praising his remarks trending on Weibo on Tuesday, one of which garnered nearly 100 million views. “Very objective! To say such a comment in the US takes a lot of courage,” wrote one user.
Though James’ jumping into the controversy has given the Morey incident new legs, Chinese tech giant Tencent on Monday streamed the two preseason games played last week in China and put out a schedule for upcoming matches outside the country. The NBA has a massive fan base in the Middle Kingdom.
The Houston Rockets, however, remain on ice, with their upcoming Wednesday game off the streaming schedule. Tencent is “expected to resume all NBA games eventually,” according to Caixin, referencing people close to the matter.
Tencent had announced Tuesday of last week that it would suspend streaming of the China preseason matches in retaliation for Morey’s tweet. Tencent started working with the NBA in 2009, and signed an exclusive five-year streaming deal worth $500 million in 2015. Earlier this year, it renewed that deal through to 2025 for $1.5 billion.
CCTV, which owns the exclusive broadcast rights to the NBA games, also said last week that it would cease airing them, and has not yet indicated a move to resume. The state-run broadcaster singled out NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s response to the crisis as a main reason for its ban. Silver stood up for NBA employees’ right to free speech and did not directly apologize for Morey’s tweet.
The China preseason games took place Thursday and Saturday in Shanghai and Shenzhen, respectively. Although many fans brought Chinese flags or held up signs critical of the NBA outside the stadium, they still showed up in cheering droves to support the Los Angeles Lakers and the Brooklyn Nets.
Meanwhile, in Hong Kong on Monday, tens of thousands of young protesters took to the streets to ask the U.S. for help in passing a human rights act that would help ensure democratic freedoms there. They waved American flags and Uncle Sam posters that showed the top-hatted, bearded icon above the same message as Daryl Morey’s tweet: “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong.”