The National Basketball Association (NBA) game on Monday, October 25th, saw a lot more than just friendly competitive banter between the players. Boston Celtics player Enes Kanter took the opportunity to advocate against Nike Inc.’s use of China’s forced labor camps to produce their products.
Kanter has long spoken out on a variety of human rights issues. His most recent protest came against the Chinese Communist Party. Two of his recent tweets include:
The first tweet featured a pair of shoes depicting Xi Jinping, the President of the People’s Republic of China, as Winnie the Pooh, which critics commonly use to portray Xi. Enes Kanter’s latest fiery tweet also called out Phil Knight, the co-founder, Chairman, and former CEO of Nike. The NBA player stated that he would book plane tickets for Knight and himself to fly to China and visit the labor camps. He then tagged both Lebron James and Michael Jordan, stating, “you guys are welcome to come too.” This tweet came in addition to Kanter’s move to draw attention to the cause by writing “modern day slavery,” “no more excuses,” “made with slave labor,” and “hypocrite” on Nike shoes. In response, Tencent Holdings LTD, a Chinese multinational technology conglomerate that provides internet and live-streaming services, pulled their live stream of the Celtics game.
The controversy surrounding Kanter’s criticism of Nike is not the first time the NBA has chosen to side with China. About two years ago, the NBA found itself at the center of Hong Kong’s anti-government protests. Activists gathered during a game between the Brooklyn Nets and Toronto Raptors. The protests sought to gather support amid the NBA’s agreement with China to stream games. Protesters arrived at the game with signs supporting the Hong Kong protesters and the Free Tibet movement. Demonstrations at NBA games continued and even led to NBA officials confiscating spectators’ signs at a Loong-Lions and Washington Wizards game.
Daryl Morey, a former general manager for the Houston Rockets, spoke out in support of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement as yet another NBA voice attempting to stand against the Chinese government, tweeting, “Fight for freedom, Stand with Hong Kong.” Morey subsequently deleted the tweet, and the Rockets owner, Tilman Fertitta, later clarified that the team was not a political organization. Though Fertitta did not immediately fire Morey, Morey stepped down as general manager about a year later. However, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver acknowledged that Chinese officials asked the NBA to fire Morey over his tweet supporting the protests.
However, not all players feel passionate about using their NBA platform to speak against the perceived injustices of the NBA’s brand-related affiliations. LeBron James, arguably NBA’s most well-known player, has expressed his disapproval of Morey’s tweet, going as far as to say that “we do have freedom of speech, but at times there are ramifications that can happen when you’re not thinking about others, and you’re only thinking about yourself.” Further, James has said that Morey was not educated on the matter and could have caused harm. James’ stance came as a surprise, as he used his NBA platform to advocate for other causes, including the BLM protests in June 2020 and denouncing former President Trump’s racist sentiments. Since then, James has received much backlash as millions of fans expressed outrage and disappointment in seeing “him join in the chorus kowtowing to Communist China & putting profit over human rights for #HongKong.”
Over the years, the NBA has declined to support the first amendment rights of free speech for their players and affiliates. Many point out the financial incentives of expanding into China and the millions of fans each of the NBA’s affiliations would lose if the league opposed the CCP. But how much money does the NBA make in China? In September 2019, the Sports Business Journal valued NBA China — a separate business arm of the NBA — at $5 billion. This valuation does not include the games, shoes, and merchandise not purchased directly from NBA China. Critics have continued to express that the NBA brand — tied to major players like Lebron James and Michael Jordan — may also influence its responses to protests.
Enes Kanter has confirmed his commitment to elevating voices silenced by the NBA in the past. His support has continued to grow, and it will most likely inspire NBA affiliates to take a stance. The growing support to oppose China’s repressive policies raises the question of how the NBA will balance their players’ and associations’ voices with millions of fans while playing nice with the CCP and profiting from China’s lucrative market.