LeBron James faces backlash over comments on NBA-China row

LeBron James said he was aware of negative reaction toward him but did not feel a need to connect with every global geopolitical issue.
LeBron James said he was aware of negative reaction toward him but did not feel a need to connect with every global geopolitical issue.PHOTO: USA TODAY SPORTS

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - It has been almost a decade since the last time LeBron James faced widespread backlash.

Then, fans in Cleveland burned his jersey. They threw rocks at a billboard with his face on it. He was maligned as a narcissist by Mr Dan Gilbert, the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, in a letter that was widely mocked.

And all James had done was announce on national television that he was going to a different team.

That was in 2010, when James, after seven seasons in Cleveland, said during a special on ESPN titled The Decision that he was taking his talents to Miami, to play for the Heat.

The backlash for that was far different from what James, now a member of the Los Angeles Lakers, faces after saying that Mr Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets, "wasn't educated on the situation at hand" when he posted and then deleted an image on Twitter supporting pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.

Mr Morey's tweet caused an international row with the authoritarian Chinese government, and now threatens the partnership between the NBA and one of its most important international markets. Several Chinese companies cut ties with the Rockets.

James further incensed his critics when he added: "Yes, we do 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 thinking about yourself."

He 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 Republican Senators Rick Scott and Josh Hawley, criticised James for seemingly blaming Mr Morey for the Chinese government's actions.


Even a fellow player, Enes Kanter, a centre for the Boston Celtics known to be politically outspoken, posted tweets that appeared to be directed toward James without naming him.


James, one of the greatest players in NBA history, tried to clarify his comments with posts on Twitter, saying that Mr Morey did not consider the "ramifications of the tweet" and that "my team and this league just went through a difficult week".

It didn't help.

In Hong Kong, protesters burned James jerseys, shot baskets at a hoop with his face on the backboard, and turned images of him into memes - including a depiction showing him embracing Chinese cash.

The breadth of the criticism was unusual.

On a section of Reddit for Lakers fans, hundreds, if not thousands, of comments offered scathing words for James.

One post read, "Regardless of what LeBron's real intention behind his words on Morey, he definitely messed up."

Several accused James of cowardice.

Speaking at practice on Tuesday (Oct 15), James said he was aware of some negative reaction towards him but did not feel a need to connect with every global geopolitical issue.

"I think when the issue comes up, if you feel passionate about it or you feel like it's something you want to talk about, then so be it," he said. "I also don't think that every issue should be everybody's problem."

The scope of the backlash, compared with The Decision, is different for several reasons.

One issue holds global importance, and involves a nexus of politics, sports and business.

The other played out mostly among basketball fans, though it changed the way that star NBA athletes viewed their own leverage in free agency.

Nine years after The Decision, there are other cultural forces at play: Social media use is much more ubiquitous.

And more than that, James is different, in part because of that backlash from nine years ago.

He's a more powerful athlete, a global superstar with three NBA championships and a settled legacy.

His business empire has expanded past basketball and into entertainment, with his name helming dozens of television and film projects.

James went from a great player to a business titan, who made activism on certain social issues a part of his empire.


All of that has combined to build him into a figure with arguably unparalleled influence in the history of the league.

But in some ways, James' history with activism has been as enigmatic as it has been common.

Fans who accused James of cowardice also charged him with hypocrisy.

James has carefully cultivated an image of willingness to engage with political issues throughout his career, including stands on police shootings and a high-profile endorsement for Mrs Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign in 2016.

Last month, Governor Gavin Newsom of California, a Democrat, appeared on James' HBO show, The Shop, to sign a Bill that would allow athletes to seek endorsements and other deals, another bit of careful brand cultivation for James.

On the premiere of The Shop in 2018, James didn't eschew a comparison to one of his idols, boxer Muhammad Ali, a famed social justice crusader. In fact, James suggested that he didn't care about backlash and that his popularity had declined when he started speaking out on various issues.

"He knew that it wasn't about him," James said, referring to Ali, adding that Ali knew that he would receive backlash and might go to jail.

James has previously been criticised for initially keeping silent about certain issues, such the 2014 police shooting of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old African American boy, in Ohio.

Early in his career, James received blowback for declining to sign a letter circulated by his teammate Ira Newble criticising the Chinese government for its support of the Sudanese government in relation to the armed conflict in Darfur, in which hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed.

But the next year, in 2008, James spoke out about Darfur on ESPN: "At the end of the day, we're talking about human rights. And people should understand that human rights and people's lives are in jeopardy. We're not talking about contracts here. We're not talking about money. We're talking about people's lives being lost and that means a lot more to me than some money or a contract."

And yet, the potential harm to James' business interests caused by Mr Morey's Twitter post cannot reasonably be separated from his criticism of the general manager.

He said he had been to China more than a dozen times in his career - usually with the league or one of his corporate sponsors like Nike, which counts China as its third-largest market.

James also has more to lose in China than just sales from shoes or other basketball-related merchandise: His entertainment projects, like Space Jam 2, may be distributed in China, a significant market for Hollywood production studios like Warner Bros and similarly for James' brand itself.

However, James may have helped the NBA. On the Chinese mainland, his comments have been met with enthusiasm.

That the most famous basketball player in the world has, by some interpretations, lent support to the Chinese government's position over that of an American basketball executive will not hurt in maintaining relationships - and profits - for basketballers in China.

After all, the Chinese buy sneakers, too.