Preface: Writing about politics in sports always feels like walking on a tightrope. As a topic becomes political, reader’s biases kick into high gear. Criticism of an athlete or a media figure is often interpreted as “hate.” In what follows, I am writing about the current state of the media environment and public opinion. For example, statements about outlets like Fox News reflect the stereotypes of progressives rather than my opinion. Likewise, statements about LeBron James and the NBA are what might come from a stereotypical conservative. The essential point is that the article is about how the current culture and media environment makes an athlete like Enes Kanter Freedom inevitable. The article is not about my opinions about China, Fox News, LeBron James, or Enes Kanter Freedom.
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The politicization of sports made Kanter or someone like him inevitable.
Kanter’s prominence is due to his outspoken advocacy related to Chinese human rights abuses and his confrontations with LeBron James. In other words, Kanter is an outspoken critic of the USA’s greatest international rival, and he is feuding with the league’s biggest star. He provides a perfect face for a conservative media whose audience has little love for China or the NBA.
The essential feature of the Kanter story is that NBA has become a highly politicized sports league that has invited a reaction. The NBAs intent is irrelevant. Whether the decision to align with progressive interests was based on principles or a strategic marketing decision doesn’t matter. Once a culturally relevant business is perceived to have taken sides in the culture war, they are now a full participant in the conflict.
The thing that makes the NBA vulnerable is the league’s ambitions for global prominence. These ambitions require working with global partners with very different perspectives on social justice and dubious human rights records. The NBA set itself up for controversy.
People now see an opportunity in calling out the NBA. In the past, the opposition has been mainly conservative commentators. These commentators are primarily limited to conservative outlets like talk radio and Fox News. However, an immigrant NBA player from a country with a despotic ruler is something very different and, unfortunately for the NBA, much more interesting.
A good starting point for the Enes Kanter story, is Daryl Morey’s “Fight For Freedom: Stand with Hong Kong” Tweet of October 4th, 2019. Morey’s Tweet and the aftermath were eye-opening for much of America. Calling out dictators and supporting democracy advocates seems like a very normal American thing to do.1 However, the NBA’s reaction did not fit this narrative of Americans standing up for democracy.
To calm the furor, Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta immediately distanced himself and his organization from Morey’s tweet, which was quickly deleted, and even granted a few likes to Instagram comments suggesting that Morey be fired. The NBA also issued a kind-of apology, one that reads a little more apologetic in Chinese than it is does in English, in an attempt to salvage the situation with Chinese power brokers ahead of the start of the season on Oct. 22.
The lack of defense of Morey surprised many fans. Most American fans had little understanding of the economic relationship between the NBA and China. American fans tend to see the world from a very US-centric perspective and think that attracting the American market is the only goal of major sports leagues.
This NBC News article provides a nice summary of the scale of the NBA’s relationship with China.
NBA games frequently attract more than 7 million viewers, even though they air in the morning in China, while playoff games draw more than 20 million viewers — the NFL, by contrast, draws a paltry 2.2 million. The NBA has more followers on Wiebo, the Chinese social network, than it does on Facebook or Twitter. More than 640 million Chinese citizens watched some form of NBA content during the 2017-18 NBA season: That’s nearly 300 million more people than the population of the United States. The NBA’s Chinese operations are worth an estimated $4 billion, and their TV deal with Tencent will net the league $1.5 billion over the next five years.
The NBA may well see its future in becoming a global basketball organization with billions of global fans rather than millions of US fans.
Issues of human rights abuses were destined to become an issue for the NBA. It's too obvious of a target. For a league aligned culturally with progressives to have a significant business relationship with China is too great an invitation to right-wing critics. But the invitation was put in the spotlight when the league’s biggest star took the side of the Chinese. LeBron James called out Morey’s Tweet in an unfortunate manner.
"I don't want to get into a [verbal] feud with Daryl Morey, but I believe he wasn't educated on the situation at hand, and he spoke," James said before the Los Angeles Lakers played the Golden State Warriors in a preseason game at Staples Center. "And so many people could have been harmed not only financially, physically, emotionally, spiritually. So just be careful what we tweet and say and we do, even though, yes, we do have freedom of speech, but there can be a lot of negative that comes with that, too.
When asked why he thinks Morey wasn't properly informed about the unrest in Hong Kong before he tweeted support for protesters, James said it is "just my belief."
"I believe he was either misinformed or not really educated on the situation, and if he was, then so be it," James said. "I have no idea, but that is just my belief. Because when you say things or do things, if you are doing it and you know the people that can be affected by it and the families and individuals and everyone that can be affected by it, sometimes things can be changed as well. And also social media is not always the proper way to go about things as well, but that's just my belief."
With that statement, conservative critics could now hammer the NBA for its relationship with China and could make light of LeBron calling out Morey’s lack of “education.” LeBron himself is the prime target in the culture wars. Having an ultra-famous athlete who has engaged in Twitter fights with Donald Trump taking the side of America’s main economic rival is too inviting a target.
It was only a matter of time before someone filled the void and took on China and LeBron.
Fast-forward to October 2021, and Enes Kanter entered the fray.
Boston Celtics games were abruptly pulled from the Chinese internet on Thursday after a center on the team, Enes Kanter, said on social media that the country’s leader, Xi Jinping, was a “brutal dictator,” citing his government’s repressive policies in Tibet.
The incident could spell fresh trouble for the N.B.A. in China. The league has millions of devoted fans there but has also just spent two years mending its image in the country after a Houston Rockets executive tweeted support in 2019 for pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.
The Chinese response was direct.
By Thursday, recent Celtics games were marked as unavailable for replay through Tencent, the Chinese internet giant that has partnered with the N.B.A. to stream its games in the country. The website for Tencent Sports also indicated that upcoming Celtics games would not be livestreamed.
Tencent Sports has not been livestreaming games involving the 76ers, either. The team hired Morey last year as president of basketball operations.
Kanter’s comments and the Chinese reaction instantly elevated Kanter’s media profile. He immediately became “The Athlete” calling out a dictator, the NBA, Nike, and other players.
This, of course, led back to LeBron James. Unintentionally, LeBron had become the most prominent China apologist for certain parts of the media. If conservative media wants to challenge progressive hypocrisy, it’s easy to juxtapose James’ criticism of US conservatives with his support for China.
As an added element, Kanter and James have a history of sparring on Twitter. Going back to 2017, Kanter, then a Knick, responded to LeBron showboating in New York.
After the Cavs earned a comeback win, Freedom had more to say, referencing James and his teammates doing the bottle flip challenge in a blowout win at Madison Square Garden a season prior.
"You ain't coming to my house playing that water bottle flip game again. I don't care who you are — what do you call yourself? King, queen, princess? Whatever you are, you know what? We're going to fight. And nobody out there's going to punk us."
James called Freedom's comments "corny," saying "I'm the king, my wife's the queen and my daughter's the princess, so we got all three covered." For good measure, James posted a picture on Instagram with the caption "You're welcome.. (King) of NY," calling Madison Square Garden his favorite playground.
It’s a standard marketing technique for follower brands to call out and attack the market leader. The less established brand puts itself next to the market leader to establish credibility and then elevates itself by taking the leader down a peg. The Pepsi Challenge is the prototypical example. In this case, it is a journeyman NBA player putting himself in the same conversation as an all-time great.
In October of this year, Kanter’s media presence and role as LeBron’s nemesis ramped up with a CNN appearance where he called out James for his lack of commitment to vaccine advocacy.
In October of 2021, Freedom appeared on CNN, where he expressed disappointment in James for not being a bigger vocal advocate for the COVID-19 vaccine, sharing the clip of his appearance on Twitter.
And then, a few weeks later, Kanter went after Nike, James, and Michael Jordan about slave labor camps in China.
Weeks later, Freedom sent out a direct shot at Nike, mentioning its founder Phil Knight, James and Michael Jordan's Jordan Brand, and sharing a picture of custom Jordan sneakers bearing messages reading "modern day slavery" and "hypocrite Nike," among other things.
Kanter’s Tweet included images of shoes with phrases like “Modern Day Slave” and “Hypocrite Nike”.
At this point, the Kanter narrative was fully formed. Kanter had established a “position” as a Turkish player with a history of opposition to authoritarians who was taking on the league’s stars. It’s a perfect positioning for conservative media outlets.
And guess what? Fox News found Kanter and invited him on. In fact, Enes announced his US citizenship on Tucker Carlson. Even his name change to Enes Kanter Freedom sounds like something that could have been focus-grouped.
Kanter seems to have moved into full commentator mode, and his critiques have moved beyond China. Kanter has offered advice to athletes that have criticized the US.
“I feel like they 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,” said Freedom
Sounds a lot like “Shut up and dribble.”
And the ride never ends. Kanter now has the high ground and a massive platform that demands more content. The next target was Jeremy Lin in early December.
"Shame on you @JLin7," Freedom wrote Sunday morning in a post to his verified Twitter account. "Haven’t you had enough of that Dirty Chinese Communist Party money feeding you to stay silent? How disgusting of you to turn your back against your country & your people. Stand with Taiwan! Stop bowing to money & the Dictatorship. Morals over Money brother."
And there is no shortage of targets. Freedom’s next target appears to be Venezuela.
The Turkish basketball player and member of the Boston Celtics, Enes Kanter, raised his voice again and this time he did it against the government of Venezuela, led by President Nicolás Maduro, who he claims is a “dictator.”
Kanter used his Twitter account to send a strong message: “I am here to raise the voices of millions against the dictatorship that caused more than 6 million people to leave Venezuela.”
Standing up to China and other authoritarian regimes is now Kanter’s brand. This puts him at odds with LeBron James, Nike, and probably most of the NBA but makes him a favorite of conservative media outlets.
Someone like Kanter was inevitable, and future conflicts are as well.
It's hard or maybe even impossible to avoid politics in sports in 2021. Not having an opinion is now sometimes offensive, as the old “Republicans buy sneakers too” attitude is probably now a cancellable offense.
There can be no pure position in an era of hyperpolarization as deeply held beliefs will automatically be interpreted as hypocrisy from the “other side.” Kanter is now a frequent guest on Fox, while on the other side of the political dynamic Megan Rapinoe and Colin Kaepernick enjoy lucrative corporate support. Support from one side leads to critique from the other. Kanter must be a right-wing sell-out for appearing with Tucker Carlson. Kaepernick is a hypocrite by taking Nike’s money. Rapinoe bullied other members of the women’s team into kneeling and then leveraged her fame into mega endorsements.
It's all pretty predictable.