Offering perhaps the most stark example yet of how pressure from Beijing is influence the discourse both within and around the NBA in the wake of the now-infamous Daryl Morey tweet expressing support for the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement, LA Lakers star LeBron James - the league's biggest star and one of the world's most dominant athletes - criticized Morey for not being "educated on the situation" and warned that freedom of speech can sometimes have "a lot of negatives that come with it."
James's remark, made during a pre-game interview ahead of the Lakers' pre-season game against the Golden State Warriors, sparked an immediate backlash, with one lawmaker (Florida's Rick Scott) criticizing the basketball star for "putting profits over human rights."
Clearly @KingJames is the one who isn’t educated on the situation at hand.— Rick Scott (@SenRickScott) October 15, 2019
It’s sad to see him join the chorus kowtowing to Communist China & putting profits over human rights for #HongKong. I was there 2 weeks ago. They’re fighting for freedom & the autonomy they were promised. https://t.co/tVI1XB7g6I
During his response to a question about the controversy, James insisted he didn't want to "get into a feud" with Morey before gently criticizing his decision to send the tweet, which prompted a furor in Beijing and threatened the future of the League's broadcast deals on the mainland, a market with hugely lucrative potential.
James claimed that "so many people could have been harmed" by Morey's tweet, not just financially, but "physically, emotionally [and] spiritually" as well.
"Yes we all do have freedom of speech but at times there are ramifications...that can happen when you're not thinking about others but you're only thinking about yourself. I don't want to get into a feud with Daryl Morey but I think he wasn't educated on the situation at hand and he spoke...and so many people could have been harmed, not only financially but physically, emotionally, spiritually...so just be careful what we tweet, what we say, what we do. Even though yes we do have freedom of speech, but there can be a lot of negatives that comes with that too."
As of early Tuesday morning, clips of the interview have already racked up millions of views, even though the clip didn't start to circulate until Monday evening.
Lakers’ LeBron James on NBA’s China controversy: “I don’t want to get into a ... feud with Daryl Morey but I believe he wasn’t educated on the situation at hand and he spoke.” pic.twitter.com/KKrMNU0dKR— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) October 15, 2019
James took to twitter afterward to clarify his statement. But instead he mostly just rephrased his earlier criticisms of Morey, adding that the GM could have "waited a week" to send the tweet, after a series of pre-season games played in China had ended.
Let me clear up the confusion. I do not believe there was any consideration for the consequences and ramifications of the tweet. I’m not discussing the substance. Others can talk About that.— LeBron James (@KingJames) October 15, 2019
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.— LeBron James (@KingJames) October 15, 2019
In retaliation for Morey's tweet, Beijing cancelled broadcasts of a couple of pre-season games and canceled events involving the Brooklyn Nets and other NBA teams as they embarked on a brief tour of China. The NBA has been criticized for kowtowing to Beijing as Commissioner Adam Silver tried to assuage Beijing's concerns while also insisting that the league supports American values like free speech.
However, as some have noted, if players aren't free to tweet openly about their political views for fear of losing their livelihoods, then that's not really free speech, and essentially Beijing is projecting the Communist Party's censorship on to the US.
This satirical mock-up of the NBA logo effectively embodies the criticism facing the League.