Basketball great LeBron James has earned a reputation for his commitment to social justice issues, and now he’s been asked to take sides as a rift grows between China and the NBA over violent Hong Kong pro-democracy protests.
Nike does big business in China and James is Nike’s highest-paid and most globally recognized pitchman. In the most recent quarter, Nike’s China revenue increased by 22 percent to almost $1.7 billion, The Wall Street Journal reported.
James has a reputation off the court for his commitment to social justice issues, Josh Peter wrote in a USA Today editorial. “Now’s the time to chop it up again,” Peters wrote. “Oppression in Hong Kong is an issue that deserves LeBron’s considered view.”
If James wants to preserve his well-deserved reputation as an athlete willing to risk backlash while speaking out against social injustice, he must show that he supports the right to free speech and believes in a free and open society, Peters wrote. “Anything less will leave LeBron looking like a sellout.”
Peters listed some social justice issues James has supported including the following:
China’s state broadcaster canceled plans to show a pair of preseason games there later this week after Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted support for anti-government protesters in Hong Kong, KTLA reported.
The tweet was deleted, but NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said the league is not apologizing for the tweet. In a statement, Silver said he supports Morey’s right of freedom of speech, and the NBA will not regulate what players, employees and team owners say.
CCTV said it won’t show the games between the Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets, scheduled to play Thursday in Shanghai and Saturday in Shenzhen. Basketball is very popular in China and those two teams would have been a huge TV draw — mainly because of James starring for the Lakers and Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba’s co-founder Joe Tsai now owning the Nets.
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“We’re strongly dissatisfied and oppose Adam Silver’s claim to support Morey’s right to freedom of expression,” CCTV said in a statement. “We believe that any remarks that challenge national sovereignty and social stability are not within the scope of freedom of speech.”
Basketball is one of the most popular sports in China. More than 300 million people play recreationally and half a billion watched at least one match last season. The Houston Rockets are one of the biggest NBA brands in China, mainly because Hall of Famer Yao Ming spent his NBA career there, U.K.’s Express reported.
Some NBA fans want the NBA to pull the Lakers and Nets from playing their two preseason games in China. One fan tweeted: “Please cancel the China games and get lakers back to America ASAP.”
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