Charles Barkley defends LeBron James' China stance: 'He had to look out for his business'

Jason Owens

LeBron James had a chance to take a meaningful stance on free expression and social justice for the citizens of Hong Kong when he spoke out on the NBA’s China controversy.

Instead he deferred to his and the NBA’s business interests in a statement last week attacking Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey for being “misinformed” for his quickly deleted tweet supporting Hong Kong citizens in their conflict with an oppressive Chinese regime.

For that, LeBron’s been widely and sharply criticized.

But that criticism isn’t coming from NBA circles as the league maintains its united front in the mess that pits its significant financial stakes in China against the ability to speak freely on the plight of the people of Hong Kong.

Commissioner Adam Silver defended James on Monday morning, calling the situation a “no-win” for players to which he’s “very sympathetic.”

Barkley on LeBron: ‘Everybody was really unfair’

And Charles Barkley weighed in for the first time Monday afternoon when TMZ cameras found him outside an airport terminal.

To the surprise of nobody, Barkley — who is still on Nike’s payroll — was in James’ corner.

“I thought everybody was really unfair to LeBron,” Barkley said. “Everybody does business in China. Every American company does business in China. Why should LeBron not be able to protect his financial interests — and the NBA and Nike?”

When pressed on James declining to take a stance on human rights issues for people across the world while he regularly speaks freely on social justice issues, Barkley defended James’ right to choose his battles.

“Everybody don't have to pick every battle to fight," Barkley said. “LeBron is passionate about the things he wants to be passionate about. We don't get to tell him what we want him to talk about.”

Charles Barkley — a Nike spokesman — was blunt in his assessment of LeBron James' take on China. (Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
Charles Barkley — a Nike spokesman — was blunt in his assessment of LeBron James' take on China. (Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

Barkley gets straight to the point

While other NBA figures like Steve Kerr and Stephen Curry have stuck to a script of declining to speak on China because they don’t have enough information, Barkley got straight to the heart of the matter. He too toed the NBA and Nike line, but candidly spoke to the reason normally outspoken figures are remaining silent. They want to protect their money.

Of course that’s no secret. But leave it to Barkley to say it out loud.

“Why do all these other companies get to invest in China and LeBron doesn't have to protect his business interests?” Barkley said. “He’s not going to be able to change anything. ... It’s not fair for them to act like LeBron’s gonna save the world.”

James made his choice

The bottom line is that James could have used his unique power and international standing to make a significant statement for human rights and freedom of expression on a world stage.

That statement would have come with great risk to his financial interests, especially those tied directly to his reported $1 billion lifetime deal with Nike. Athletes like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Muhammad Ali before him took great personal risks to stand for social justice, and their legacies reflect those stances.

But James chose to protect his business interests. And like Barkley said, that’s his right. Of course, it’s his right.

But that right doesn’t protect his reputation and his legacy from taking a significant hit after he failed to take a risk to do the right thing.

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