Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 10 December 2021

 In the NBA, Freedom stands tall against China

The shoes of Boston Celtics center Enes Kanter Freedom are pictured during the first half of the team's NBA game against the Washington Wizards on Oct. 30. (Nick Wass/AP)
Opinion by Josh Rogin
December 10 at 7:14 am Taiwan Time
“We must always take sides,” Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said while accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere.”
For many celebrities and athletes, openly criticizing China’s genocide and mass atrocities comes with huge costs and risks. That’s why corporations and their hired stars bend over backward to avoid offending the delicate sensibilities of the Chinese Communist Party. But in the National Basketball Association, Boston Celtics player Enes Kanter Freedom is answering Wiesel’s call and trying to force the rest of us to choose between silence and speaking up.
He could lose his career as a consequence — perhaps as soon as next week, when the Celtics will be able to trade or waive him. But regardless of what happens, Freedom has no intention of going silent.
“I don’t know how long I’m going to be in the league, but I’m going to expose these horrible people as much as I can,” he told me in an interview before his Tuesday game against the Los Angeles Lakers and their star, LeBron James. Freedom hasn’t only been calling out the dictators who rule places such as Turkey and China, but also the actors and athletes in the United States who abet them.
Freedom, who changed his last name after becoming an American citizen in November, has been on a fierce tear over the past two months, publicly attacking Chinese President Xi Jinping, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, actor John Cena, Nike and any other corporation or celebrity self-censoring on China’s atrocities. He knows he may never get another contract to play in the NBA, but he told me he doesn’t care.
“A lot of people are scared to say something, but someone had to do it, and sometimes you have to sacrifice to do it,” Freedom said. “And I hope more people will follow, now that they’ve seen it done.”
In fact, Freedom is not alone. Sacrificing millions of dollars in revenue, the Women’s Tennis Association pulled its events from China to protest Chinese government mistreatment of tennis star Peng Shuai. The voices of U.S. stars Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka surely mattered. But the International Olympic Committee actually helped Chinese authorities produce propaganda for Peng’s apparently staged reappearance.
In the NBA, Freedom said he has been pressured by officials and the NBA Players Association ever since he began protesting against China’s atrocities earlier this year. On Oct. 20, he wore shoes with the slogan “Free Tibet.” Two NBA officials begged him to take them off, he told me. Freedom refused. Chinese authorities responded by banning all Celtics games in China.
For his Oct. 22 game, Freedom upped the ante, wearing shoes bearing a flag used by Uyghurs who oppose Chinese rule and calling for the Chinese Communist Party to stop the genocide, torture, rape and slave labor ongoing in Xinjiang. At his Oct. 24 game, his shoes bore the words “Free China” and an image of Winnie the Pooh, often used as a mocking synonym for Xi.
NBA officials, including Commissioner Adam Silver, have told Freedom he is not breaking any rules by wearing shoes protesting China, he said. But the league’s silence stands in stark contrast to the support the NBA offered Freedom when he began speaking out against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose government imprisoned his father, a genetics professor, for several years. Turkish authorities call Freedom a terrorist supporter for openly following exiled religious leader Fethullah Gulen. The league was vocal in support of him then, Freedom said, but now says nothing.
In November, Freedom called out James and his sponsor Nike, accusing “King” James of placing “money over morals” by ignoring forced labor in China. Freedom's shoes mocked James for claiming in 2019 that then-Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey “wasn’t educated” about the situation in Hong Kong when Morey tweeted in support of pro-democracy protests there.
In response, James has accused Freedom of trying to steal his “energy.” James can’t seem to fathom that Freedom might actually be standing up for what he believes in for the benefit of others. Freedom called James’s reaction “disgusting.”
“He has no shame,” Freedom said. “I can’t believe that he has the biggest influence in the NBA and maybe all of sports, and he’s just like, ‘I’m not going to say anything about this.’ It’s terrible.”
Some progressives have taken issue with Freedom’s willingness to speak on right-wing television and radio programs, where the hosts inevitably try to rope him into their unrelated partisan agendas. His aggressive and unpolished style leaves him open to attack.
But Freedom is forcing all of us to decide whether we will be silent while the Chinese government perpetrates a genocide against Uyghur Muslims on our watch. He has made his choice. What will the rest of us do?

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