At its core, the latest twist in this peculiar NBA-China controversy comes down to this: LeBron James is annoyed that Daryl Morey wasn’t more careful with his words. And how did James express his frustration? By not being careful with his own words, naturally. This ongoing saga makes us dumber and more distracted by the day.
There’s nothing wrong with James feeling the players and teams visiting China last week were put in a difficult position after Morey, the Houston Rockets general manager, posted a tweet supporting pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong. Free speech is always wonderful for the individual, but complicated for any group he represents. As the biggest star in the NBA, James made a useful point when he called for a “consideration for the consequences and ramifications” before making a powerful statement that affects the entire league.
James should have kept his message that simple and focused. But self-importance got the best of him. When speaking to reporters for the first time Monday night about the China fiasco, James ventured into territory so dangerous that he damaged his sterling reputation as an enlightened icon.
He accused Morey of being “misinformed or not really educated on the situation.” He spent way too much time bellyaching about players having “business to take care of while they were over there” and how those potential money-making appearances were canceled. Worst of all, he used the same kind of loaded language about Morey’s “Fight For Freedom. Stand With Hong Kong” tweet that others resort to when dismissing the protests of domestic social concerns that matter to him.
James harped on the timing of Morey’s tweet, which would have been fine if his tone hadn’t been so callous. The Los Angeles Lakers star even took to Twitter after his media session and grumbled that Morey, “Could have waited a week to send it.” The NBA would have been done playing exhibition games in China. The backlash still would have been intense, but NBA employees wouldn’t have had to face it in person. There is a delicate way to say that, but James sounded like an NFL fan crying about players kneeling and making demonstrations during the national anthem.
Protest some other time. Protest somewhere else. Those are always the suggestions of people who care nothing about your societal concerns. Misinformed? That is code for, “We hope to make your compassion seem like overly emotional idiocy.” Consequences and ramifications? In James’s tone, it can be taken to sound suspiciously like, “Stop messing with my money.”
I don’t believe that was his intention. It seems that James simply wanted to stand up for the players and criticize Morey – who tweeted, clarified and wisely disappeared from the public eye – for blindsiding them with controversy and forcing them into a situation in which they were expected to take a stand on an unfamiliar issue. Because the NBA canceled player media availabilities in China, James had more than a week to organize his thoughts. He even could have run them by public relations officials for insight on how his remarks would be received. But when he spoke, he was more graceless, impulsive and ignorant than he ever has been.
He needed to keep his message tidy and succinct. He should have copied how NBA Commissioner Adam Silver chose to frame the large and divisive geopolitical dispute as simply an issue of freedom of speech for Morey and the league. While many criticized Silver for not openly supporting Hong Kong’s fight to protect its human rights, he did his job – at least as the commissioner of a multibillion-dollar business financially wedded to the Chinese market – in trying to balance the rights of NBA employees with a lucrative partnership. The Chinese government wanted Silver to punish Morey for questioning its totalitarian ways. Ultimately, after trying to massage the situation, Silver said no because that is not the NBA – or the American – way. Silver won’t win humanitarian of the year for caring only about his league, but it’s naïve to think he would handle this particular matter in any other way.
An uncomfortable fact of life: It takes a shameful amount of personal hypocrisy and willful negligence for all of us to get through each day. Even those blessed with great morality tolerate, if not contribute to, immoral behavior. Clearly, James lives too far from Hong Kong to be moved by protestors taking a stand, at great risk, to protect their diminishing freedom. Clearly, considering how this controversy stunned most American NBA fans, this human rights struggle isn’t an issue high on our priority lists, either. In an ideal world, that’s not okay. In a realistic one, that’s life.
For James, the problem is that he has made human compassion a significant part of his brand. He grew up admiring Muhammad Ali, and in his own way, he has used the Ali model to transcend sports in a responsible manner. He has used his voice to support Black Lives Matter, to denounce gun violence and to call President Donald Trump a “bum” for the way he treats people. He has challenged the NCAA on its financial exploitation of college athletes. A year ago, he opened a school to turn around the lives of some of Akron’s most at-risk children. Most of the time, you can depend on James to be a thoughtful and impassioned public figure, the quintessential athlete icon.
But this time? James, whose net worth has been estimated as high as $450 million, acted like the person of privilege that he has become. He was so lost on this issue that even his Twitter clarification missed the mark.
“Let me clear up the confusion,” James wrote. “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.”
It’s impossible to go after Morey, to call him misinformed, without addressing the substance. James could have avoided this mess by saying, “I respect Morey’s concerns about Hong Kong and his right to express himself, but I wish he would have found a way to avoid putting the rest of us in such an awkward situation. I don’t think he realized how strong the backlash was going to be.”
Like Silver, James wouldn’t have won any awards for focusing on his interests. But it’s a lot better to be considered self-absorbed than narrow-minded. For a superstar who has enhanced his career with his “More Than An Athlete” proclamations, James failed to live up to his own standard.
He thought he could shame a rival general manager for causing him a few days of discomfort without adding anything worthwhile to the larger debate. He thought his temporary strife actually mattered. It was an arrogant error that stamped James with the same label he tried to attach to Morey: misinformed.