LeBron James is without question one of the greatest stars in the history of the National Basketball Association. In fact, when one debates the greatest players in NBA history, his name is one of the few that must be in that conversation. But in recent weeks, he has hurt his own reputation substantially by toeing the party line in the NBA-China controversy. And on Tuesday, on the opening night of the season, he dug the hole a little bit deeper. “We Do Have Freedom of Speech…” Sorta
The NBA would rather never hear the word “China” again.
Earlier this month, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey posted a picture to his Twitter account to support the protests in Hong Kong. The NBA was headed to China at the time for a pre-season series and important business meetings, of which James was a member. Morey’s tweet outraged China, and created immediate tension between the nation and its businesses and the NBA.
James was at the center of the fallout, as he was the face of the Association courting major Chinese businesses. The NBA is beholden to China directly and to Nike indirectly, who in turn are themselves beholden to China. Therefore, they were quick to condemn Morey and come to China’s defense. And no voice made that defense louder than James himself. The normally outspoken and boldly political superstar condemned Morey for daring to speak his mind:
LeBron James rips Daryl Morey, says Morey was uneducated. Says, “We do have freedom of speech, but there can be a lot of negatives that come with that too.” Really. pic.twitter.com/ZTw6a3FZ5n
“Yes, we all do 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… I believe he wasn’t educated on the situation at hand, and he spoke, and so many people could have been harmed, not only financially, but physically, emotionally, spiritually… Yes, we do have freedom of speech, but there can be a lot of negatives that come with that too.”
It was an astoundingly out-of-touch remark from James, who himself clearly doesn’t understand the chasmic power imbalance between the Chinese and the protestors in Hong Kong. But the league clearly was willing to go to any length to express its support for China, and James was willing to play along.
Given the nature of today’s media world, the controversy over China had largely died away by the opening night of the season. James’ Los Angeles Kings were preparing for a season-opening showdown against their crosstown rivals, the Clippers. The players gathered to hear the national anthem. And then this happened:
Whether through carelessness or indifference, James chose to scream “let’s go” during the national anthem. Players are of course welcome to protest the anthem, particularly in the NBA; however, this didn’t seem so much like a protest as it did like self-centeredness. James wasn’t actively protesting the anthem, he was putting himself above the anthem. For someone who recently bent over backwards to support China, it’s not a good look. The continued controversy caused some, like former NFL Punter and podcaster Pat McAfee, to admit that their fondness for James was dwindling.
There’s no question that James is a calculated businessman and a superstar basketball player. But his skills as a politician are a little suspect. He’ll need to work to rehabilitate his reputation this season, and being the best in the world may not be enough anymore (although with the performance Kawhi Leonard put on last night, even that designation may be in question).