The NBA player Enes Freedom is showing the danger of attracting the wrong kind of supporters.
Formerly Enes Kanter, the 29-year-old Boston Celtics center took a new surname when he became an American citizen on Monday. For months, he has been a vocal critic of the Chinese government for its many human-rights violations—specifically its repression of Tibetans, democracy advocates in Hong Kong, and Uyghurs, a Muslim minority group that, according to Amnesty International and extensive news reporting, has been subjected to concentration camps, torture, and systematic efforts to erase its culture.
Freedom, who himself is Muslim, has also been calling out the NBA for prioritizing its business relationship with China over the rights of Uyghurs and others. It was an admirable and understandable position for Freedom to take, because he has firsthand experience with an authoritarian regime. Freedom has been exiled from his home country of Turkey for speaking out against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In 2018, Freedom’s father was sentenced to 15 years in prison for allegedly supporting a group that Erdoğan blames for a coup attempt, but those charges were eventually dropped.
In recent weeks, though, Freedom has zeroed in on the Los Angeles Lakers’ LeBron James—whose nickname, “King James,” hints at his stature as pro basketball’s preeminent figure—for not being more outspoken about China. “Money over Morals for the ‘King,’” Freedom wrote recently on Twitter, as if single-handedly leading a charge against China should be James’s responsibility.
But strident criticism of James vaulted Freedom, a journeyman who has played for five different NBA franchises, into a new level of fame—at least among conservatives who resent James’s advocacy for Black Americans and bristle at his criticism of former President Donald Trump. A few years ago, the Fox News commentator Laura Ingraham insisted that, instead of getting involved in U.S. politics, basketball players should just “shut up and dribble”—a demand that James rejected.
When Freedom talks with his new supporters, he shows little regard for the right to political dissent in the United States. On Monday, Freedom appeared on Fox News’s Tucker Carlson Tonight, whose namesake anchor breathlessly asked Freedom if he was more grateful for his citizenship than some of his teammates who had been born in America. The subtext of Carlson’s question was obvious: Most NBA players are Black, and Carlson frequently portrays people of color who seek political and social change as ungrateful and unpatriotic.
Freedom took the bait. “People should feel really blessed and lucky to be in America,” he responded. “They love to criticize it, but when you live in a country like Turkey or China or somewhere else, you will appreciate the freedoms you have here.” And then Freedom went further. In a dramatic turn for someone who has suffered the consequences of political repression, he suggested that other players “should just keep their mouth shut and stop criticizing the greatest nation in the world, and they should focus on their freedoms and their human rights and democracy.”
Carlson grinned and said, “That’s how I feel.”
Freedom made his feelings about James known before his team’s November 19 game against the Lakers. The Celtics center wore custom shoes bearing an image of James being crowned by Xi Jinping, China’s Communist leader, as James stood next to bags of money. When Freedom tweeted a photo of the shoes the previous day, the caption read in part: “Sad & disgusting how these athletes pretend they care about social justice ... They really do ‘shut up & dribble’ when Big Boss [China] says so.” The conservative media personality Dana Loesch replied with several fire emojis. Donald Trump Jr., who recently called James a “bitch” on Instagram after the four-time NBA champion had two fans removed from a game for inappropriately heckling him, retweeted Freedom’s post. Freedom also drew praise from former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Yet Freedom wasn’t nearly as bold when saw James at the game. The two never even spoke. Instead, Freedom saved his indignation for Fox News. Appearing on America’s Newsroom with the hosts Bill Hemmer and Dana Perino on Tuesday, Freedom explained his problem with James: “When you’re an athlete and you’re signing with hypocritical companies like Nike, and when China becomes your big boss, obviously you have to remain silent. It’s just a shame.” Someone had to speak up, Freedom has argued.
But if Freedom really wants to promote human rights and stop the oppression of Muslims, Tucker Carlson makes a bizarre ally. The Fox host has stirred up xenophobia and embraced the white-supremacist “great replacement” theory, which claims that people of European descent are being pushed aside by nonwhite immigrants from Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East. Even as Freedom judges James for the NBA’s appeasement of China, he himself has made unsavory allies while trying to raise his own profile.
Indeed, criticizing prominent Black athletes has made Freedom a media mainstay and a new friend of the right. On CNN Newsroom With Pamela Brown last week, he insisted that the Chicago Bulls legend Michael Jordan “hasn’t done anything, nothing, for the Black community in America besides just, you know, giving them money.”
In fact, Jordan did face criticism during his playing days for not speaking forcefully about issues affecting the Black community, but minimizing his financial contributions is a mistake. Jordan is a founding donor of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, and pledged last year to donate $100 million to social-justice causes over the next decade. And that’s just a snippet of his long list of charitable works.
Although anyone with strong views will inevitably alienate people, taking shots at prominent Black athletes who have done significant social-justice work will not help Freedom advance freedom. All he’s doing is empowering right-wingers who delight in silencing social-justice advocates.
Even so, Freedom kept attacking James after practice in Boston on Tuesday. “Sure, I’d love to sit down and talk to [James],” Freedom said. “I’m sure it’s going to be a very uncomfortable conversation for him. I don’t know if he’s gonna want that.” Freedom patronizingly added, “I don’t know if he’s educated enough, but I’m here to educate him, and I’m here to help him, because it’s not about money. It’s about morals, principles, and values. It’s about what you stand for. There are way bigger things than money. If LeBron stopped making money now, his grandkids and grandkids and grandkids can have the best life ever.”
Odds are that conversation will never take place. James said after last week’s Lakers-Celtics game that the journeyman center is “definitely not someone I would give my energy to.”
But if for some reason a conversation between the two does take place, it might be more uncomfortable for Freedom, who perhaps needs to be “educated” about how Carlson and others on the right are giving him a platform only because he’s criticizing some of the country’s highest-profile Black voices.
Maybe the onslaught of attention has damaged his memory, but Freedom used to understand the need to protect everyone’s right to speak up. Last summer, as protests were taking place around the world after the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, Freedom addressed the crowd at a Black Lives Matter rally in Boston. “First of all, I want to thank you all for what you’re doing,” he said. “I really, really appreciate it. The second thing I want to say, man: We need change, and change cannot wait, you know?”
If Freedom wants to maintain any credibility on social-justice and human-rights issues, he can’t allow himself to be played so easily by the very people who seek to undermine everything that he claims to stand for.