Dan Wolken, USA TODAY Published 12:41 a.m. ET Oct. 15, 2019 | Updated 4:21 p.m. ET Oct. 15, 2019
On behalf of the 327 million American citizens who generally believe that freedom is good and authoritarian regimes are less good, let me apologize to LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers.
It must have been a real inconvenience to take that 13-hour chartered flight to China last week and hang around a luxury hotel in Shanghai for five days while promotional appearances got canceled. Surely it was awful to be in the middle of an international firestorm where the stakes were so high: Would preseason NBA games be played or not?
And to think, LeBron and his teammates were so disrupted all because Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey had the temerity to send a relatively anodyne tweet supporting a protest that pretty much every one of his countrymen — whether on the left or right side of the political spectrum — would agree with over the rights Hong Kongers were promised when the United Kingdom handed control of the territory over to China in 1997.
Because as James tweeted on Monday night, trying to clarify comments he made to the media earlier in the evening: “My team and this league just went through a difficult week. I think people need to understand what a tweet or statement can do to others. And I believe nobody stopped and considered what would happen. Could have waited a week to send it.”
Right on, LeBron. Millions in Hong Kong are fearful that their entire way of life is about to change, and thousands upon thousands of protesters are risking their lives to make a stand for their freedom and their future. Why would Morey think about them when your preseason vacation and your bank account is at stake? How selfish of him.
If only Morey had done what you did Monday, LeBron, and tacitly admit that the only thing that really matters is your ability to sell shoes and market “Space Jam 2” in a country of 1.4 billion, we could have had an intellectually honest discussion about doing business in China and the cost of free speech in a country where only propaganda is tolerated.
The problem, LeBron, is that you’ve helped construct a world in which NBA players have been incentivized to criticize our leaders and our government here at home. And there’s nothing wrong with that, by the way. It’s part of who we are, and there’s a large segment of people who agree with you when you call President Donald Trump “u bum” on Twitter and say that going to the White House as an NBA champion used to be a great honor “until you showed up” as you did on Sept. 23, 2017.
You couldn’t have waited a week to send that tweet, LeBron, because it’s what you believed. And whatever backlash or consequences were going to come from sending that tweet for either you or the NBA, you were willing to deal with it because you presumably believed that expressing your opinion on the matter contributed to a greater good.
But when you go that hard at our own elected officials, LeBron, it is difficult to reconcile that with the idea that China of all countries should be above reproach for anyone who works in the NBA.
And make no mistake, LeBron, that’s exactly what you were suggesting on Monday when you criticized Morey for not giving any consideration to “the consequences and ramifications of the tweet” while making it clear you didn’t want to discuss the substance of what he was saying.
Don’t take this the wrong way, LeBron, but we really didn’t need you to point that out to us. I think we all understand that when Morey hit the send button, he wasn’t thinking that this would cause an international incident and potentially jeopardize billion-dollar deals.
The thing is, LeBron, we’ve come to expect more of you. You’re obviously an intelligent person, a compassionate person and a socially conscious person. At this point in your life and career, it’s part of your brand. But to present that face to an American audience while essentially admitting that all you care about when it comes to the rest of the world is cashing those big checks — well, let’s just say it doesn’t look very good on you.
Maybe you don’t know it, but your news conference on Monday night played right into the hands of Chinese government propaganda and undermined the values you espouse in other facets of your life and public persona.
Surely you are aware of this, LeBron, but in the United States it’s considered a good thing to exercise your freedom of expression in support of a just cause because you’ve done that yourself on numerous occasions.
Not supporting other Americans who exercise that same freedom because it might personally inconvenience you for a few days overseas, LeBron, is without question the most disgraceful moment of your career.