The NBA’s Second Chance on Human Rights

Enes Kanter is an RDI Freedom Fellow, a member of our soon-to-be-launched community of global dissidents and democracy activists. He had no involvement in this piece.

While most of his teammates were probably relaxing or grabbing lunch, Boston Celtics player Enes Kanter began an unusual pre-game ritual last Wednesday. Six hours before his game against the Knicks, Enes posted a video message to “Brutal Dictator” Xi Jinping stating that, among other things, “Tibet belongs to the Tibetan people!” At the game that night, he wore shoes painted by Chinese-dissident artist Badiucao with the words “Free Tibet” written across the side. Two days later, a few hours before his next game, he posted another video calling for the Chinese government to close Uyghur slave labor camps, and showed off another pair of protest shoes he would play in. Two days after that, another pair of shoes. The day after that, another video.

Enes Kanter is a Turkish-born basketball player who has never been shy about his views. For his criticism of Turkish ruler Recep Erdoğan, he’s been named an enemy of the state. In 2017, the government revoked his passport, and just this month they issued him his tenth arrest warrant. Now, he’s turned his attention to the government of China, which responded to his protest by immediately pulling the broadcast of the Celtics games. The cost to the NBA could be significant, as China accounts for about 10 percent of global revenue for the league.

Still, supporting Enes should be a no-brainer for the league as the NBA has been an outspoken supporter of social justice movements. During the summer of 2020, the league painted “Black Lives Matter” on the courts. Kneeling during the national anthem became the new normal for essentially everyone on the sideline. Players could swap their last name from the back of their jersey with an option from a list of preapproved statements like “Say their names,” “I can’t breathe,” and the cryptic “Group Economics.”

Unfortunately, the league’s support for protests isn’t so consistent. While the NBA threw its might behind the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, it was less than a year earlier that they essentially condemned all activism relating to China. 

In October of 2019, Beijing’s crackdown on freedom in Hong Kong was in full force as protesters risked their lives to save their democracy. The general manager of the Houston Rockets, Daryl Morey, tweeted “Fight for freedom. Stand with Hong Kong” in support. Immediately, Chinese companies suspended NBA coverage, ended partnerships with the Rockets, and pulled advertising campaigns. The Chinese government pressured the NBA to fire Morey.

Under serious diplomatic and financial pressure, the NBA surrendered. Morey released a statement saying “I was merely voicing one thought, based on one interpretation, of one complicated event.” The owner of the Rockets tweeted “Listen….[Morey] does NOT speak for the [Rockets].” The Rocket’s star player James Harden said “We apologize. You know, we love China.” LeBron James called Morey “misinformed” and “not educated about the situation.” The NBA released a statement in English calling the incident “regrettable,” and another in Mandarin which said “We are extremely disappointed by the inappropriate remarks.” Facing widespread backlash in America, the NBA commissioner, Adam Silver, released another statement clarifying that the league stands behind free speech. Still, the damage had already been done and the message was clear: if dictators torture innocent civilians outside American borders, who are we to judge?

In the context of the 2019 dispute, Enes’ protest is all the more controversial––and all the more necessary. As the NBA desperately tries to salvage its relationship with the Chinese government, Enes is ensuring that it doesn’t come at the expense of players’ ethics. Now, the NBA is facing a choice: to stand by the values it publicly professes, or tacitly recognize that the league’s only interest is profit.

While the NBA’s predicament is a unique one, it’s representative of a much larger issue. As Western companies make inroads into lucrative Chinese markets, the CCP is doing everything in its power to ensure that it happens on their terms. 

When Mercedes Benz posted a tweet in 2018 of a car and the quote “Look at situations from all angles, and you will become more open” from the Dalai Lama, the CCP threw a fit. Mercedes deleted the tweet, and the same day released a statement in Mandarin saying “This morning, we released a very incorrect message on international social media.” In 2018, the Chinese government demanded that airlines around the world stop recognizing Taipei as a part of Taiwan, a country China lays claim to, so airlines like Delta, United and American Airlines changed their websites to please them. 

Most egregiously, the American movie industry is contorting itself to make it past Chinese censors and gain access to the largest film market in the world. In a piece in the Atlantic, Shirley Li writes that “film censorship—the rise of which you can literally watch on screen—has become one of the most visible examples of American businesses bending their values to satisfy China.” China only allows 34 foreign films to play in the country a year, a racket with hundreds of millions of dollars on the line for the lucky few that make it in. This breeds a culture of self-censorship in Hollywood which extends well beyond the specific blockbusters which contend for one of the 34 slots, metastasizing wildly in studios which wouldn’t dare greenlight even a minor film that might blacklist their other content.

In RDI’s virtual event last week Saving Democracy, Uyghur human rights lawyer and RDI Freedom Fellow Rayhan Asat said “If you look at the apartheid movement in South Africa, American people as well as the whole world community stood behind [the protests], and then apartheid fell.” There are a couple of reasons why things are different now, she explains, but historically “Hollywood has been the champion of these movements.” Now, “suddenly, these people were all silenced.” The situation with the Uyghurs is dire, and “for far too long we’ve allowed the Chinese government to control not only the government’s leaders as to how they engage in diplomatic engagement, but also these institutions.”

Censorship doesn’t have to be imposed by a government on its citizens for it to be dangerous. It can be coordinated by foreign governments, imposed by economic coercion, and enforced on American citizens by American companies. As Enes challenges the CCP to end Uyghur concentration camps and free Tibet, he’s also challenging American companies to stand behind basic principles of human rights they seem willing to sacrifice for access to the Chinese market. 

Enes is forcing the NBA into a defining moment which could entangle countless American industries with deep relations to China. The NBA got it wrong last time, but they have a second chance to make it right. Will they stand with Enes? Was their advocacy for Black Lives Matter all for show? If the NBA is the league of activists they claim to be, it’s time for them to prove it.

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