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LeBron James is not a politician. This feels like a weird thing to have to say, even though, as I’ve argued in the past, maybe someday he should become one. But he’s going to be treated like one from now on. This is partly his fault, but not entirely.
After days of avoiding any discussion of the China-NBA scandal that has now reached its second full week — to the point that even ESPN is having shows canceled because its talent liked Daryl Morey’s initial tweet — LeBron finally spoke up Monday night. It is fair to say his message was … let’s go with “muddled.” LeBron said Morey’s tweet in support of the Hong Kong protesters was “misinformed,” which was almost certainly the worst possible thing he could have said in the situation. (He might have even been better off sticking to James Harden’s “We apologize! We love China!”) LeBron looked self-centered rather than pragmatic (worrying only about the NBA’s and his own profit rather than the actual issue at hand), hectoring and condescending (as Deadspin’s Chris Thompson put it, LeBron is claiming “Morey is not sufficiently knowledgeable about the Qing dynasty to have feelings about Hong Kong protesters having their eyeballs shot out by cops”) and generally spineless. Perhaps worst of all, he didn’t do anything to discourage the increasing belief — one being lobbed at him from every rung position on the political spectrum — that he will only speak out on issues if doing so will not affect him financially. You can tell by how much cleanup he tried to do on Twitter afterward that he knew he blew it.
Considering he had a few days to figure out what he was going to say, it’s surprising his statement on Morey was so sloppy and poorly considered. (Particularly because, as ESPN’s Dave McMenamin reported, a primary reason LeBron was frustrated with Morey is because he’s management, and LeBron felt any player who spoke out the way Morey did would have been fined, which Morey wasn’t.) But the weird thing about all this is not that LeBron James didn’t have a more coherent messaging strategy on such a hot-button issue — it’s that we expected him to. LeBron has pushed his “More Than an Athlete” initiative for years, and he has spoken eloquently on issues of social justice in the past, so it’s reasonable to hold him to a higher standard than someone who just wants to quietly play basketball and point out inconsistencies in his approach. But it also does not make him, say, Marco Rubio. He may someday be a politician. But he is not one yet.
In many ways, this is what had LeBron so frustrated when the NBA initially stayed so quiet in the days after Morey’s tweet, including the cancelation of a press conference that was supposed to involve Silver in China. As reported by The Athletic’s Shams Charania, when LeBron met with Silver:
LeBron James spoke up in front of everyone in the room and stated he believed that Silver and the NBA needed to explain and articulate the situation first, before the players would have to, multiple sources with direct knowledge of the meeting told The Athletic. James expressed concern that without the league being able to speak to media to address all of the questions and dynamics about China and the NBA, it was unfair for solely players to bear that responsibility. … “Why are we the ones to go through the risks of speaking out in China when the league should be the first to address the matter, with our voices to follow?” said one source with knowledge of the meeting and the players’ thinking in regard to James’ message.
There are two ways to look at this. One, that when James speaks on social issues, he’s doing it out of a sense of obligation as a public-facing person and a face of the NBA; as long as he makes sure he’s on the same page as the NBA, his personal beliefs, whether it’s speaking out on Colin Kaepernick or calling the president a bum on Twitter (which are not official NBA positions but definitely position the NBA brand among positions the world wants to believe it holds), carry weight that Silver’s wouldn’t. The other, less charitable version is that LeBron wants to toe the company line before he says anything, and just wants to know what that company line is before he speaks up. (LeBron has criticized the NBA before, but on issues of basketball and union relations, not politics.) Whichever way you look at it, though, it asks LeBron James to act, essentially, like a public official, one with the same weight (or even more) than the multibillion-dollar corporation he works for. LeBron’s willingness to speak his views on social justice in America certainly contrast with his lack of such willingness to speak on social justice in China. But he shares this hypocrisy with his league. It’s not unreasonable to suggest that perhaps this has driven his public statements all along. When it benefits his league to speak up, he does. When it doesn’t, he doesn’t.
That’s annoying — it certainly makes his calling the president a bum feel considerably less cathartic, and I’m definitely gonna take the JAMES 2024 sign out of my front yard — but it’s really not all that different than the rest of us. We all work for somebody, you know? The way the world works now, with this corporation taking over this corporation, and normal human workers feeling like their jobs are more precarious than ever, and the sense that any public or social-media statement you’ve ever made could come back someday to ruin your life … there’s all sorts of opinions that we, as regular people walking down the street, don’t broadcast out of concern for our own well-being. Is this lame? Does it make us cowardly? Probably! But it’s also the reality of life on this planet. Maybe LeBron loses a little bit of credibility for not speaking out on political issues in China as strongly as he does on political issues in the United States. Does this make what he has said less important? Less true? No one bothers Kawhi Leonard about his inconsistency of message, because Kawhi Leonard has never taken a political stand on anything. (Fake Facebook memes aside.) To criticize LeBron for not being stronger on China is fair. But the idea that because he stays out of that means that he should stay out of everything is bizarre … unless, of course, you just wanted him to shut up and dribble in the first place.
But LeBron has had to be the public face of his league on this as well, now taking the place as the punching bag for the NBA’s cowardice on China that Adam Silver had last week. But Silver and the NBA are still the bad guys on this. They’re the ones bending to China’s will, the ones refusing to stand up for basic human rights in order to protect, at all costs, what makes up 15 percent of their revenue, tops. (Probably much less than that.) The NBA isn’t off the hook, exactly, but we’re all yelling at LeBron now rather than Silver, Houston’s owner, the Nets’ owner, ESPN, and all the other people who have desperately clamored for China’s approval. Which is exactly what LeBron was concerned about in the first place.