Et Tu, LeBron?

James didn’t defend free speech. But in China, the NBA has made a mess that its biggest star can’t be expected to clean up.

LeBron James
Ringo H. W. Chiu / Reuters

Less than two years ago, the Fox News host Laura Ingraham infamously said that LeBron James should “shut up and dribble,” after the NBA superstar criticized President Donald Trump. Now everyone—especially on the right—is on the Los Angeles Lakers forward’s case for disheartening comments he made about the explosive political situation between the NBA and China. Not even pro basketball’s biggest star can get the league out of the bind it’s in. If anything, James is reinforcing it.

On Monday, James weighed in for the first time on the international firestorm swirling around the NBA. The controversy began after the Houston Rockets general manager, Daryl Morey, tweeted his support of the Hong Kong protesters on October 4, right before the Lakers and the Brooklyn Nets were scheduled to play exhibition games in China. Morey’s tweet was quickly taken down, but the fallout from the tweet—which included lost sponsorships for the Rockets and China’s refusal to allow the broadcast of two preseason games—has continued and even intensified after James voiced his opinion.

“I’m not here to judge how the league handled the situation,” James said to reporters before the Lakers preseason game against the Golden State Warriors. “I just think that when you’re misinformed or you’re not educated about something, and I’m just talking about the tweet itself, you never know the ramifications that could happen. We all seen what that did. Not only for our league, but for all of us in America, for people in China as well.”

Especially because James has built a reputation for speaking his mind about important issues, many American fans were dumbfounded that he not only took a position that aligned with China’s, but also faulted Morey for—as the old saying goes—playing with the church’s money. In other words, Morey’s tweet put the entire NBA and all of its players’ lucrative relationships with China in the crosshairs.

Like many other American businesses, the NBA has staked much of its future on China, a market that has 300 million people playing basketball. Several NBA players have signed healthy endorsement deals with Chinese companies or, like James, have made regular visits to China, as they continue to capitalize on a Chinese market that is thirsty for American basketball. All of that was nearly compromised with one tweet.

“Sometimes,” James continued, “you have to think through things that you say that may cause harm not only for yourself but for the majority of people.”

As someone who has been critical of his own government, James is the last person who should ever give the impression that he favors the suppression of any viewpoint—even one that is proving to be as costly and uncomfortable as Morey’s has been for the NBA. Freedom of speech isn’t something that should be protected only on a case-by-case basis. It becomes a slippery slope for some people—including James—when it actually requires some sacrifice.

Still, expecting James and other NBA players to solve a tense political crisis between China and the league is unfair, and outside of their responsibilities. Inevitably, strengthening the league’s relationship with a repressive country was going to involve some pitfalls. Even though James, more than any other player, is the face of the NBA, he doesn’t have to be an authority on China–Hong Kong relations. Nobody should be surprised if he’s more vocal about issues he’s lived with in America than about those in China.

In 2017, James called Trump a “bum” in a tweet, which became the most retweeted tweet by an athlete that year. James was coming to the rescue of his colleague Stephen Curry, the Warriors guard whom Trump attacked after Curry admitted that he had no interest in making the traditional visit to the White House to celebrate the Warriors’ NBA championship.

That was just one of many times James went after Trump, who finally fired back at James by insulting his intelligence. While conservatives excoriated James for his criticisms, the former league MVP didn’t lose a single dollar over what he said about the president. The NBA may have gained a few more detractors, but it was largely business as usual, and it certainly didn’t put the league in the middle of a crisis.

But what if James’s takedowns of Trump had resulted in a more costly backlash? What if the league, other players, and James himself had lost sponsorships and endorsements? Would he have apologized or backpedaled?

Considering how fiercely James unloaded on Trump, it’s hard to imagine him taking back anything he said. And if the league had ever moved to sanction him in any way for his views, the blowback would have been immense. And the league would have deserved it.

But, according to an ESPN report last night, in a private meeting between players and the NBA commissioner, Adam Silver, in China, James was anything but a defender of free speech. He seemed to argue to Silver that Morey should be punished because if a player had sent a tweet that jeopardized an international relationship and millions of dollars, the league would have issued some level of discipline. Silver reportedly cited James’s situation with Trump as proof that wouldn’t have happened.

That is a puzzling stance for James to take. Had a player tweeted what Morey did, James surely wouldn’t have suggested any discipline—even if James himself were frustrated with being put in the middle of the resulting controversy. On Twitter, James tried to further explain his position, but given the seriousness of the situation in Hong Kong, I doubt many fans were receptive to him explaining how this created a challenging week for the players who were in China as everything unfolded. The Hong Kong protesters were definitely aware of James’s opinions. His comments so angered them that they burned his jersey—something American fans have done when angry at James, but for much different reasons.

Morey likely didn’t anticipate that his tweet would practically destroy his team’s relationship with China. He probably also couldn’t have foreseen how much his tweet would potentially sabotage players’ business interests in China. An unnamed Lakers player, sources told ESPN, lost out on a $1 million endorsement opportunity with a Chinese company because of Morey.

At the meeting with Silver, according to ESPN, James accused the Rockets general manager of not thinking about how his pro-democracy tweet would affect others in the league, and complained that the commissioner and Morey had left players to handle a public-relations crisis they didn’t cause. Which is true. When it invested so heavily in the Chinese market, the NBA—like lots of American companies trying to do business in a country whose government doesn’t care about human rights and doesn’t tolerate criticism by its own citizens, and apparently not its business partners —was just crossing its fingers and hoping for the best.

By painting Morey as the villain, though, James is giving the Chinese government a free pass for its heavy-handed, petty overreaction. After all, Morey’s show of support for the Hong Kong protesters was just one tweet; it was hardly Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” It looked as if the Chinese government just used the tweet to show the NBA who has the upper hand in their relationship.

Predictably, James’s comments are being used against him by some of the same people who are quick to criticize black athletes for speaking out. “The masks are off,” Ingraham declared on her Fox News show. Now suddenly they’re looking for James to single-handedly defeat communism like when Rocky Balboa took down Ivan Drago.

James pointed out that his critics seem far more upset about problems happening abroad than about the ones they see every day in America. “I also don’t think every issue should be everybody’s problem as well,” he said on Monday. “When things come up, there’s multiple things that we haven’t talked about that have happened in our own country that we don’t bring up.”

James said his priority is protecting players from being put in an awkward position. That’s why, according to the ESPN story, the league followed James’s lead and didn’t make players available to the media while in China. James must realize that money and principle are almost never in perfect balance—especially if it involves people who ultimately don’t share the same values. Sooner or later, you have to decide which is more important.