Will Kobe, LeBron pass on Darfur?

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

BEIJING – The Chinese government was so frightened that Joey Cheek, the former Olympic medalist turned human rights advocate, would come to the Beijing Games and mention the murder of 400,000 Sudanese that it decided to revoke his visa.

They must be petrified then of Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, the two global sporting icons who are immensely popular in this basketball-mad country and are simply too big to silence.

Should either display the conviction they've flashed in the past in publicly denouncing the genocide in Darfur, then the Chinese could be humiliated by the attention on their decision to buy oil from, and provide arms to, the murderous Sudanese government.

Will they, though?

Or will the enormity of it all, the general chilling of speech at these bizarre games or the push by USA Basketball for Kobe and LeBron to focus first on winning gold, allow the moment to pass?

The situation is so tense in totalitarian Beijing that Cheek, who won two medals as a speed skater at the Turin Games and then donated his prize money, time and boundless energy to the children of Darfur, is stuck back in Washington D.C. No less than President Bush is being lobbied to fight for the return of his visitation visa.

"What I see is a major push globally by the Chinese to suppress speech by any athletes anywhere," Cheek said by phone Thursday. "Revoking my visa probably stands as an example to anyone in China who wants to speak about anything."

James and Bryant probably don't fear the Chinese. Bryant said he didn't even know who Cheek was, let alone what happened.

They have been among the most outspoken of the major American athletes on the subject and are capable of generating a level of worldwide (and in-China) attention like few others.

Bryant cut a public service announcement a year ago on Darfur, demanding people to rise up and help ("Together we have the power to change the world"). James, in an interview with ESPN, echoed the sentiments ("We're talking about lives lost") and promised a bigger statement here in Beijing.

On Thursday, however, both shied away from bold pronouncements.

"No, not really," Bryant said when asked if he had anything to say about Darfur.

"Basic human rights should always be protected," James said before adding, "One thing you can't do is confuse sports and politics."

"I think the political guys are going to do what they need to do, that's their job," he added. "We are here to concentrate on a gold medal. Sports and politics just don't match."

Whether they continue that approach remains to be seen. Perhaps they are planning something big later in the Olympics. Perhaps they've decided to step back.

Or perhaps they'll come to the realization of the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity they have here and will grow emboldened.

"For certain, when the Olympics are over, their opinions won't carry so much weight," USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo said. "Right now, it is a hot button."

But will Kobe or LeBron push it?

It's not fair to demand that they do. If they want, Bryant and James can embrace a potential hero's role. You can't demand a person to have that in him, though.

Cheek, who makes this look almost easy, is the first to say each person's commitment to a cause is their own personal choice. Just two years ago, he was advocating merely for the children of Darfur to play sports and improve the basics of their life in refugee camps. His demands for stronger action grew over time.

"At some point I said, 'As great as it is that we have these programs for kids to play, you know what would be really great is if their government stopped gunning them down,' " he said.

So he makes no demands on athletes, just on China and the International Olympic Committee to allow anyone to speak as they wish.

"Let me not say what anyone else should do, because that is not my place," Cheek said. "I think for everyone their first goal is to compete, as well it should. But freedom of speech is implicit in the Olympic charter."

At the very least, he's heartened that the U.S. Olympic team, in an obvious statement, selected a former Sudanese refugee, runner Lopez Lomong, now a naturalized citizen, to carry the American flag at Friday's Opening Ceremony.

James previously promised on ESPN that his decision would not be affected by any possible pressure from his two main employers – the NBA and Nike – both of whom see China as fertile ground for business.

"People should understand that human rights and people's lives are in jeopardy," James said in May. "We're not talking about contracts here. We're not talking about money."

It was then that he promised to say something big in Beijing. One day in, he didn't. Has anything changed?

"No," he said. "Nothing. It's the same statement I've made."

Bryant echoed the sentiment and claimed that this may not be the best time.

"Nothing's changed. It's just time to play basketball," he said. "I'm not a government official or politician. I'll let them do that."

You weren't a politician before and you spoke out, he was reminded.

"That's different than coming out here and speaking about it on a daily basis," Bryant said. "If the politicians want to get paid to shoot jump shots, then they can come and do that."

Colangelo and U.S. head coach Mike Krzyzewski have been adamant that they have told no one what or what not to say.

"What we said was, 'We don't muzzle anyone. If you, in your heart, think you need to say something, that is entirely up to you,' " Colangelo said.

For Krzyzewski, however, the focus is basketball. He wants nothing to affect the team. Not politics, not anything. His preference is obvious.

"I don't think there is a balance right now," Krzyzewski said. "If you're a competitor … you have to be single-minded in what you're doing. It's not about seeing the city or making political comments, although they can say whatever they want."

Krzyzewski wasn't convinced they should even be put in the position.

"Why would you ask them? They are not the experts," he said.

Because they spoke out about it before. And no one is asking a player who hasn't previously denounced the situation.

"Well, I've talked about the Duke team before," Krzyzewski said. "I am talking about USA Basketball right now. It's not about avoiding an issue; it's about concentrating on one. I would hope people would be respectful of that."

Colangelo points to the importance of the team to represent the United States with "class and dignity" and isn't certain that making speeches about major international policy is even the most effective course of action.

"Let me ask you this, what carries more weight?" he said. "One of them making a comment about what's happening in Tibet or Darfur or two nights ago in Shanghai when our players helped raise $430,000 for the earthquake relief program where 70,000 Chinese died? I think that's a little bit more important."

Can't a player do both?

"Yes. A person may choose to do that," Colangelo said. "If they chose to do that, I don't have any issue with that."

No doubt the Chinese government is waiting to find out if Bryant, James or any other high-profile athlete makes that choice.

The torch hasn't even been lit and this has already been an Olympics overwhelmed by embarrassing questions about government crackdowns, the curbing of free speech or, most comically, claims by the government and its pawns at the IOC that the thick smog blocking the sun over Beijing is really just innocent "mist."

The Chinese people have been warm and welcoming, unfailingly polite and positive. Their government has been the opposite, almost incapable of dealing with an outside world they can't control.

"Revoking my visa is just a small incident in a systematic effort anywhere that China has the authority over a country or an athlete to try to shut people up," Cheek said.

"Right now, when we are celebrating this whole peaceful event, the reality is the whole world is not together. There is this massive conflict and a massive amount of people suffering, and the host country is in position to do something about it. Not only are they not doing anything about it (but also) they are keeping the people perpetrating these crimes in power or at least keeping their pockets full.

"What's Olympic about that?"

Nothing, of course. And perhaps no one is in better position to point it out than Kobe or LeBron. If they so choose.

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