Preseason caveats notwithstanding, a game featuring the Lakers and Warriors should rarely ever take a backseat to its accompanying media availabilities. But these days, tweets can incite international incidents, Twitter can turn news conferences into events and the react-athon can feel more like a game than the stuff that happens in the parameters of the court.
So I guess nobody should be surprised that it happened twice in the 10 days since Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey’s seven-word endorsement of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement drew China’s ire and jeopardized its relationship with the NBA.
Last week, Warriors head coach Steve Kerr was grilled for delivering an aria on the so-called complexities of the geopolitical situation. Last night, it was LeBron James who stumbled and clarified his way to a criticism of Morey’s timing, implying that Morey was ignorant of the financial and potentially physical ramifications of his tweet, especially with the Lakers and Nets in Shanghai. Shut up and spreadsheet, essentially. “Could have waited a week to send it,” LeBron added in a tweet after the news conference.
Sure, but the inconvenience amplified the message. That the language of protest defends Morey’s position from LeBron’s critique is about only the 17th weirdest thing about this story, its sheer absurdity striking at the heart of why James’ — and to a lesser extent, Kerr’s — opinions were so widely anticipated and roundly rebuked, and why the NBA is catching so much heat for mimicking a line of corporations that have dealt with China’s heavy hand before them: Anyone who tries to turn social activism into a marketing tool is bound to run up against an ideal of moral perfection one can’t live up to.
Two of the most outspoken members of the country’s most socially conscious male sports league, they serve as unofficial spokesmen for the NBA’s wokeness, for which the league has gotten quite a bit of credit. On the heels of Donald Trump’s presidency and the protest against police brutality that barred Colin Kaepernick from playing in the NFL, the NBA emerged as a panacea for consumer anxiety. Boycott the NFL, Uber, even Facebook — but catch the Warriors on TNT tonight.
It was always exaggerated, of course. Encouraging freedom of expression to espouse ideals — no matter how noble those ideals may be — is not a shield against corporate malfeasance. In fact, it’s quite ordinary PR work.
But almost everyone went along with it. Players and coaches said they felt lucky to be part of a league that valued freedom of speech. James himself produced a documentary series called “Shut Up and Dribble,” exploring NBA players’ changing roles in affecting social change. #MoreThanAnAthlete, right? The media, including myself, praised the phenomenon without applying appropriate rigor. And the fans just wanted to feel good about liking what they were watching. The impulse seems innocent, but it left so much unexamined.
Those chickens just came home to roost. With James opting to protect his pockets, the NBA finally passed the morality buck back to its consumers.
Does that make him a hypocrite? Yes. I might add, though, that “hypocrite” has become quite the scarlet letter for a term that applies to nearly every one of us, especially when it comes to our economic ties to China. That’s the problem with marketing morality: Moral character doesn’t exist in an easily prepackaged binary of good and bad. It’s more like a dichotomy, and most of us fill in the space between monks and multibillionaires.
No matter how many times James’ tweet quoting Martin Luther King Jr. is retroactively ironically retweeted today, James’ stance on China — though I do hope he examines it — doesn’t erase the good he’s done. In 2012, he tweeted support for Trayvon Martin, the black 17-year-old slain by George Zimmerman, and participated in a tribute alongside his team. His production company is giving a voice to untold stories. He is a vocal Trump critic. He supported historic California legislation allowing college athletes to earn endorsement money. He opened the I Promise School, and pledged to provide up to 2,300 students with college scholarships. He also chose to secure the bag over wading into a conflict he knew little about prior to this month.
The notion that this now makes him unqualified to discuss politics will be a convenient argument for his political opponents, a charge that is disproportionately levied against African-Americans, many of whom feel they have so many reasons to demand social justice at home and such little incentive to defend America abroad.
“If an issue comes up if you feel passionate about it, if you feel like it’s something you want to talk about, then so be it. I also don’t think that every issue should be everybody's problem,” James said in practice Tuesday. “There’s multiple things that we haven’t talked about that happen in our own country that we don’t bring up.”
LeBron’s passivity doesn’t make him a fraud. It makes him like most people: He believes in a few key issues that are close to his heart and makes sacrifices for them while generally doing what good he can within the confines of the behavior that ensures the rewards keep rolling in. He is morally compromised in a morally compromised world, a hypocrite and a hero to the people he has uplifted, an aspiring billionaire trying to be a social activist, more than an athlete but less than an ideal.
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