By Nick Hawks
Michael Jordan didn’t do politics in his playing days. ‘His Airness’ was far more than a basketball icon: He was a high-flying revolution that saw athletes cash in on endorsements, sometimes even more than they made on the court. Being an athlete became a brand.
This year, based on his shoe deal alone, Jordan will bring home an estimated $130 million, despite not having picked up a basketball professionally since the song “21 Questions,” by 50 Cent was trending number one across billboards all over the U.S. in 2003 — which is why Jordan didn’t do politics.
“Republicans buy sneakers too,” he reportedly once said to a friend.
For everything he was on the court, practically a superhero, he was a mere mortal when it came to lending his voice to causes that didn’t have the ability to speak for themselves. This is where LeBron James comes in.
James was deemed the next Jordan from the time he was 17, gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated as a junior at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in 2002. Before ever stepping onto an NBA court, James had earned himself a $90 million shoe deal from Nike, one that he would far out-perform on the court.
It would be quicker to list accolades that James hasn’t achieved on the court. Rookie of the Year, four-time MVP, three-time Finals MVP, yadda yadda yadda. You name it, he’s probably done it, picking up the torch that Jordan had passed down without hesitation. But it’s off the court where the two differ the most.
In recent years, James has emerged as the most outspoken athlete of his generation, and maybe ever, a perfect concoction of his unwillingness to “shut up and dribble,” along with the development of social media in the prime of his NBA career, at the height of his respective powers.
In 2012, he posted a photo to Twitter with him and his Miami Heat teammates donning hoodies in tribute to Trayvon Martin with the caption, “#WeAreTrayvonMartin.” In 2014, he spoke out against Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling after Sterling had made racist remarks, putting pressure on NBA commissioner Adam Silver, who eventually had Sterling removed from power.
He has spoken out against gun violence. He has waged a Twitter war with President Donald Trump. He has spoken out against the NFL’s treatment of Colin Kaepernick. Do a simple Google search of James, and you will find a laundry list of causes that he has lent his voice to, which is why his most recent comments are so disappointing.
The relationship between the NBA and China is a complicated one, but to sum it up, China has a lot of money, and their citizens really love basketball. This is fine. The NBA doesn’t check under the bed, and the monster that is China, hiding underneath, doesn’t rear its ugly head. If that seems like a strong stance to take, consider this — China doesn’t even allow Twitter in its country because they are extremely sensitive to their people speaking negatively about their government.
Twitter is free speech, which is not something China believes in. They have an alternative to Twitter, Sina Weibo, which is closely monitored. Posts with potentially sensitive information are deleted after manual checking. Posts with certain keywords are automatically flagged.
This type of censorship has raised an uprising in Hong Kong, centered around people unsatisfied with the government, calling for democratic changes. Here’s where the NBA comes in on all this: Daryl Morey, general manager of the Houston Rockets, tweeted out his support to the protesters on Oct. 4, which caused a major uproar among Chinese officials.
NBA merchandise was pulled off the shelves. An exhibition that was soon to be played between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Brooklyn Nets was nearly canceled. Appearances by the players from that game were canceled. One player, who was to collect a seven-figure paycheck for such a speaking arrangement, had the carpet pulled out from underneath him. Players feared for their safety. James, who had some of his biggest speaking engagements of the year through Nike, had his events canceled. He was not happy.
“When you’re misinformed, or you’re not educated about something, and I’m just talking about the tweet itself, you never know the ramifications that can happen,” James said. “And we all see what that did, not only did for our league but for all of us in America, for people in China as well, and sometimes you need to think through the things that you say that may cause harm not only to yourself but to the majority of the people.”
Let me translate that for you: Daryl Morey didn’t consider the financial repercussions for James and his NBA comrades. It’s laughable to suggest Morey wasn’t educated. Morey has a computer science degree from Northwestern, as well as an MBA from the MIT Sloan School of Management. He is widely regarded as one of the savviest general managers in basketball. All Morey did was send a tweet, which he deleted within five minutes of hitting send, and China reacted as if its very right to breathe air was threatened. If that’s all it took for NBA players to fear for their safety while visiting the country, then what are we even doing? Why is the NBA in bed with these tyrants? Money. Follow the trail of dollar bills, like Hansel and Gretel following breadcrumbs. But at what cost?
China remains ticked, even whining to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver that Morey should be fired, which Silver refused to do. James himself demanded Morey be disciplined, suggesting that if an NBA player raised such a commotion he would be penalized, but again was rebuffed by Silver, who reminded James that he had never been punished for speaking out against President Trump.
The matter is far from over. James said his piece condemning Morey, and like the rest of the NBA, is done speaking on the matter. But the message has been sent.
James will speak up on human rights, as long as none of his speaking appearances are threatened to be canceled. The debate on who is better between Jordan and James on the court rages on, and probably will for years to come. However, where it comes to speaking out on social injustice, where James once had a commanding lead, the gap is narrower than ever.