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NBA commissioner Adam Silver has repeatedly supported players' rights to free speech throughout his tenure. In that time, his stance on in-game statements regarding politics and social justice evolved from 2016, when he preferred players refrain from "using our uniforms for political expression," to the Orlando bubble, where jerseys displayed messages ranging from "Black Lives Matter" to "Education Reform."
That shift has coincided with increased criticism from political conservatives, who consider the NBA's support of racial equality at home and its business ties abroad a conflict of interest in social justice. Never mind that the league's most vocal critics have equally diverging interests, as do most Americans whose prosperity depends on a functioning global economy. The web of billion-dollar deals between the NBA, Nike, their biggest stars and China is more nuanced than the "whataboutism" into which it has devolved.
At the center of this discussion now is Boston Celtics center Enes Kanter, a Turkish-born Muslim whose basic principle — "I don't do politics, I do human rights" — raises questions of hypocrisy on a global scale.
'You have to take your shoes off': How Enes Kanter uses sneakers to convey protests
When Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) wrote Silver in July 2020 to ask how he planned to defend a player "if they choose to speak out against the Chinese Communist Party's actions in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, or elsewhere" — the space Kanter occupies 16 months later — the NBA responded, "We support the ability of our players and other team representatives to speak out on issues of public concern that are important to them."
The league has consistently led with that directive and accepted its consequences under Silver. The terms of engagement for the NBA and its players are clearly defined, regardless of any philosophical differences.
So, it raised eyebrows when Kanter said two NBA employees asked him to remove sneakers sporting the words "Free Tibet" on them prior to his Oct. 20 season opener against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden. Kanter told CNN, "Two guys from the NBA came up to me and said, 'You have to take your shoes off. We are begging you. ... You have to take your shoes off. We have been getting so many calls.'"
Players have long scrawled statements on their sneakers, and the NBA never explicitly ruled against it, other than outlawing third-party corporate messaging. Political and social justice messaging on sneakers has increased since the league lifted restrictions on sneaker colors in 2018. If anyone asked Kanter not to wear "Free Tibet" sneakers, they did so out of turn. He was allowed to wear them, and he did wear them.
Kanter has not responded to multiple requests for clarification on this subject.
Kanter told CNN the employees apologized at halftime. He has worn custom shoes every game since in support of citizens of Tibet, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Xinjiang seeking sovereignty from Chinese rule. Designed by Chinese artist Badiucao, the sneakers have featured a host of pointed messages: "Free China," "Taiwan belongs to the Taiwanese people," "Free Hong Kong," "Free Uyghur," "No Beijing 2022," "Stop genocide, torture, rape, slave labor," "Stop organ harvesting in China," "Close the camps" and "Modern-day slavery."
Kanter is no stranger to authoritarianism. His opposition to Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been met with death threats. Dubbed by Kanter the "the Hitler of our century," Erdogan labeled Kanter a terrorist for his support of Fethullah Gulen, an exiled Muslim cleric who Erdogan accused of orchestrating a failed coup attempt in 2016. Kanter's father spent seven years in a Turkish prison over similar allegations.
"I've been talking about all the human rights violations and injustices happening in Turkey for 10 years, and I did not get one phone call," Kanter told CNN this month. (He wrote "Free political prisoners" on his shoes to little fanfare in 2020.) "I talk about China one day, and I was getting a phone call once every two hours." Kanter did not clarify who is calling him.
'Hypocrite Nike': Sneaker giant accused of using Uyghur forced labor in China
Against the Washington Wizards on Oct. 27, Kanter's Air Jordans featured the phrases "Hypocrite Nike," "Made with slave labor" and "No more excuses." It was a reference to allegations of forced labor in China among Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in factories for "82 well-known global brands," including Nike.
The U.S. State Department estimated that China has detained more than 1 million minorities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) since 2017. The department's 2020 report on international religious freedom said as many as "1.6 million transferred laborers were at risk of being subjected to forced labor."
In a November 2020 article for the "Journal of Genocide Research" entitled, "Why Scholars and Activists Increasingly Fear a Uyghur Genocide in Xinjiang," British scholar and XUAR expert Joanne Smith Finley wrote, "For the past four years, the region of Xinjiang in Northwest China has witnessed the largest forced incarceration of an ethno-religious minority anywhere in the world since the Second World War."
Muslim minorities have alleged they were separated from family, systematically tortured and sexually assaulted in Xinjiang "re-education camps," sold into factory work nationwide, paid less than their coworkers, often lower than minimum wage, and barred from practicing their religion, per reports by multiple media outlets, watchdog organizations and Canada's Subcommittee on International Human Rights.
In a tweet before the Wizards game, Kanter called on Nike endorsers LeBron James and Michael Jordan and co-founder Phil Knight to "visit these SLAVE labor camps and you can see it with your own eyes." Nike is in the midst of a reported eight-year, $1 billion deal to be the NBA's on-court apparel provider. An online database also reports more than 75% of NBA players donned Nike or Jordan Brand sneakers last season.
"We are concerned about reports of forced labor in, and connected to, the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR)," Nike said in a statement in March. "Nike does not source products from the XUAR and we have confirmed with our contract suppliers that they are not using textiles or spun yarn from the region."
However, Congress, The Washington Post and the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a Canberra-based think tank, all published reports in 2020 alleging use of Uyghur forced labor at China's Qingdao Taekwang Shoes Co., sometimes directly from "re-education camps" more than 2,000 miles away in Xinjiang. One of the largest factories sourced by Nike, the company reportedly produces 8 million pairs of Nike sneakers each year.
According to Taekwang's parent company in South Korea, Uyghurs accounted for roughly 10% of the factory's workforce in 2019. The Chinese government, which says its "re-education camps" are necessary to extinguish poverty and religious extremism among Muslim minorities, has outlined plans for 1 million people from Xinjiang to be working in factories across the country by 2023, The New York Times reported.
Taekwang employees allegedly work within confines of barbed-wire fences under watchtowers. Uyghurs worked separately from their Han counterparts and retreated to supervised dormitories at night, The Washington Post reported. They were taught "patriotism education" and Mandarin at "Pomegranate Seeds" schools as part of a government-led effort to assimilate minorities, according to state-run China Ethnic News. Chinese President Xi Jinping called for citizens to "hold together tightly like pomegranate seeds" in a speech outlining his quest for "ethnic unity" in 2017, when the "re-education camps" were established in Xinjiang.
Prior to The Washington Post publishing its report on Taekwang, Nike told the publication that its manufacturers in China are “strictly prohibited from using any type of prison, forced, bonded or indentured labor."
"We are committed to upholding international labor standards globally," a Nike spokesman said.
Soon after The Washington Post's report, Nike published a separate statement to its website that read, in part, "when reports of the situation in XUAR began to surface in 2019, Taekwang stopped hiring new employees from the XUAR to its Qingdao facility and an independent third-party audit confirmed there are no longer any employees from XUAR at the facility. Our ongoing diligence has not found evidence of employment of Uyghurs, or other ethnic minorities from the XUAR, elsewhere in our supply chain in China."
Nike has lobbied Congress against portions of a bill to ban products made with forced labor in the XUAR, The New York Times reported. Versions of the bill have passed the House in September 2020, 406-3, and the Senate this past July, unanimously, but a final proposal has yet to reach President Joe Biden's desk.
"Nike remains vocal about injustice here in America, but when it comes to China, Nike remains silent," Kanter, who played last season in Nike's home state of Oregon, said in a tweet on Oct. 25. "You do not address police brutality in China. You do not speak about discrimination against the LGBTQ community. You do not say a word about the oppression of minorities in China. You are scared to speak up."
'Hear us all the way in China': NBA also has business relationship with China
Kanter has leveled similar criticism against the NBA.
"As an NBA athlete, it's saddening, disgraceful and disgusting to see them remain silent about China, and that's why I will not be silent," Kanter told supporters in Washington, D.C., at a rally to end Uyghur forced labor on Oct. 30. "Let's have Xi Jinping, the insecure brutal dictator, hear us from all the way in China."
I love seeing Tibetans, Uyghurs, Taiwanese, Hongkongers, everyone!!
All standing in solidarity urging for one simple thing: Freedom!!!
This is the beginning of a new generation of hope. #FreeTibet #FreeUyghurs #FreeHongKong #StandWithTaiwan pic.twitter.com/gzWST9tHv8
— Enes Kanter (@EnesKanter) November 6, 2021
The NBA's long-held philosophy portends that its brand, reluctantly accepted as "the wokest professional sports league," delivers freedom of thought among its values to an estimated 500 million Chinese viewers.
"We are an exporter of American values," Silver told Bomani Jones for GQ Magazine in November 2020, echoing his past sentiments. "And again, I'm not naive. I don't mean to suggest that therefore their system of government will change because people watch NBA basketball. But I think through those relationships come commonality of interest and ultimately empathy and a better understanding of each other. I don't know how else to say it, but I think it's a net positive, because the alternative is disengagement."
Critics argue that stance is merely public relations spin to continue conducting business in and with China.
At the very least, the NBA is walking a tightrope in China. The league's training program there, of which its broadcast partner Walt Disney Co. is a stakeholder, was valued by Sports Business Journal at $5 billion. NBA China launched three academies in 2016, including one in Xinjiang that the NBA said it shuttered in 2019. An ESPN report detailed alleged abuse of trainees at the facility, among other troubling allegations. NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum conceded to ESPN that the NBA "didn't have the authority, or the ability to take direct action against any of these local coaches, and we ultimately concluded that the program there was unsalvageable."
'We will have to live with those consequences': How Daryl Morey's Hong Kong tweet affected NBA's business
When then-Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted in support of protesters in Hong Kong on Oct. 4, 2019, the NBA's initial statement was met with confusion and ultimately derision from all sides.
"We recognize that the views expressed by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey have deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China, which is regrettable," the Oct. 6, 2019, statement said. "While Daryl has made it clear that his tweet does not represent the Rockets or the NBA, the values of the league support individuals' educating themselves and sharing their views on matters important to them."
The NBA's translated version published to Weibo, China's version of Twitter, said the league was "extremely disappointed" by Morey's "inappropriate" tweet, which "severely hurt the feelings of Chinese fans." League spokesman Mike Bass clarified at the time, "Our statement in English is the league's official statement."
"We are not apologizing for Daryl exercising his freedom of expression," Silver said in his attempt at clarity during a news conference from the NBA Japan Games a day later. "I understand that there are consequences from that exercise of freedom of speech, and we will have to live with those consequences."
Those consequences included the Chinese government removing NBA broadcasts from its state-run China Central Television (CCTV), a practice that continues today with few exceptions. Silver estimated the fallout from Morey's tweet cost the league "hundreds of millions of dollars." Within months, the NBA reportedly lowered its salary cap projection for the 2020-21 season by $3 million (about 3%), prior to the pandemic.
Silver said before this season that the NBA's salary cap projection of $119 million for the 2022-23 season — 6% growth, despite its trying last two seasons — is "not dependent on" broadcasts returning to CCTV.
Tencent, a private streaming service in China, resumed airing NBA games 11 days after Morey's tweet. The service excluded Rockets games, a consequence that has transferred to the Philadelphia 76ers since its October 2020 hiring of Morey. Kanter's protests prior to this season also earned the Celtics a Tencent ban.
Revenue from broadcast rights sold to Tencent, which reached a five-year, $1.5 billion deal with the NBA in 2019, is shared equally among all 30 teams, as is all apparel sold abroad. That deal remains in place today, representing hundreds of millions more in annual basketball-related income that is tangled in this web.
Morey feared he might be blackballed by NBA powers that be — and worse from China — but his move to the 76ers two weeks after he stepped down in Houston lends credence to Silver's position: "The values of the league support individuals educating themselves and sharing their views on matters important to them."
In the immediate aftermath of his tweet, Morey's statement stopped short of an apology: "I would hope that those who are upset will know that offending or misunderstanding them was not my intention." He later told ESPN, "I'm very comfortable with what I did."
Kanter has shown no sign of couching his public statements.
'I will expose you': Kanter claims Celtics limiting playing time due to his protests
The Celtics reserve insinuated on Nov. 14 that his playing time in Boston has been cut short due to his commentary. "Keep limiting me on the court," he wrote on social media. "I will expose you off the court."
Kanter also played for the Celtics during the 2019-20 season, when his role under coach Brad Stevens dwindled to fewer than 10 minutes per game in the playoffs. He is Boston's third-string center this season, a role further limited by new coach Ime Udoka's switching defensive scheme — Kanter's greatest weakness.
"Our playing time reasoning is strictly based on basketball," Udoka said last week, detailing those reasons.
Kanter's case for regular minutes was not helped by his -15 rating in a five-minute season debut against the Toronto Raptors. The calculus for his playing time is simple: When starting center Robert Williams is sidelined, Kanter sees the floor. Williams left the Celtics' Nov. 15 game against the Cleveland Cavaliers with knee soreness, so Kanter got the nod. He has played in each of their last five games, averaging 13 minutes.
'I am informed and educated on the situation': Kanter criticizes LeBron James' relationship with Nike, China
China's NBA sanctions have had no bearing on Kanter's salary, which is not dependent on the salary cap. Minimum contracts are determined by the collective bargaining agreement that took effect on July 1, 2017.
That CBA runs through the 2023-24 season. The league's lavish contracts with Nike, Tencent and its broadcast partners in the U.S., Turner Sports and Walt Disney Co., all come to a conclusion in 2025. The conversation about China's relationship to the NBA and Nike will only grow louder in the years to come.
The cap also does not impede James' salary. His longevity affords him a deal greater than the traditional maximum, but he is not without conflicts. James signed a lifetime contract with Nike in 2016 that his business partner estimated to be worth more than $1 billion. James also sold "a significant minority stake" in SpringHill, his production company, to Nike and other investors at a valuation of $725 million last month.
— LeBron James (@KingJames) September 14, 2018
Criticism from both sides of the political aisle followed James' rebuke of Morey's tweet in support of Hong Kong in 2019. James said Morey "was misinformed or not really educated on the situation." James, too, attempted clarity, suggesting his criticism of Morey's tweet had less to do with its messaging than it did the threat it posed to him and his teammates while playing exhibition games in China at the time.
"I’m not discussing the substance," James tweeted on Oct. 14, 2019. "Others can talk about that."
Kanter took aim at James ahead of Friday's game against the Los Angeles Lakers, posting images of his latest custom sneakers on social media. One shoe read, "I am informed and educated on the situation." The other depicted Xi placing a crown atop "King" James' head against a backdrop of bags of money.
"Money over morals for the 'King,'" Kanter wrote. "Sad and disgusting how these athletes pretend they care about social justice. They really do 'shut up and dribble' when Big Boss [China] says so. Did you educate yourself about the slave labor that made your shoes or is that not part of your research?"
Money over Morals for the “King” 👑
Sad & disgusting how these athletes pretend they care about social justice
They really do “shut up & dribble” when Big Boss 🇨🇳 says so
Did you educate yourself about the slave labor that made your shoes or is that not part of your research? pic.twitter.com/YUA8rGYeoZ
— Enes Kanter (@EnesKanter) November 18, 2021
NBA players have largely been silent on the subject of China, and Kanter had a message for them, too.
"If you are a Nike athlete," he told CNN earlier this month, "to me you are a hypocrite."
That would presumably include Kanter's Celtics teammate, Jayson Tatum, who signed a deal with Nike's Jordan Brand in June 2019. In a conversation with James' business partner, Maverick Carter, in November 2019, Tatum said he lives "solely on what I make off the court in endorsements," saving his NBA salary.
Using Tatum as an extreme example, even a 3% loss in revenue from Morey's tweet would have cost the Celtics star $5 million over the life of the five-year, $163 million contract he signed in 2020. The financial threat of touching what Silver called "a third-rail issue" is real, even if it is a small percent of their income.
'He's trying to use my name to create an opportunity for himself': How Kanter's criticism of LeBron James, Michael Jordan falls short
When asked for his reaction to Kanter using his likeness in the name of human rights, James said, "I don't give too many people my energy. He's definitely not someone I would give my energy to. He's trying to use my name to create an opportunity for himself. I definitely won't comment too much on that. ... He's always had a word or two to say in my direction, and as a man, if you've got an issue with somebody, you really come up to him. He had his opportunity tonight. I saw him in the hallway, and he walked right by me."
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin similarly accused Kanter of "clout-chasing" and "trying to get attention," before dismissing the Celtics center: "His wrong remarks are not worth refuting." This discussion of how Kanter delivers his messaging enshrouds the actual substance of his statements.
Kanter does not always help his own cause. He returned to CNN this week to call out Jordan.
"Michael Jordan hasn’t done anything for the Black community in America besides giving them money," Kanter said on Sunday. "I feel like we need to call out these athletes. At least LeBron James is going out there and being the voice of all those people who are oppressed in America. But Michael Jordan has not done anything for the Black community because he cares too much about his shoe sales all over the world and America, and I feel like we need to call out these athletes and not be scared about who they are."
Jordan has long been criticized for his silence on social issues. The past seven years have told a different story. Jordan pushed for the ouster of Donald Sterling, the racist former Los Angeles Clippers owner. Two years later, he opposed North Carolina's "bathroom bill" and called attention to "the deaths of African Americans at the hands of law enforcement." Jordan, whose Nike deal has reportedly earned him more than $1 billion, has also pledged to donate $100 million to social justice causes in the next decade.
"Black lives matter," Jordan said in conjunction with his Nike brand's June 2020 announcement. "This isn't a controversial statement. Until the ingrained racism that allows our country's institutions to fail is completely eradicated, we will remain committed to protecting and improving the lives of Black people."
What Enes Kanter's protests mean for the NBA and its business partners
Kanter's latest comments are their own form of whataboutism. It is one thing to ask how someone could so vocally advocate for human rights in America and opt out of the conversation entirely in China, especially when he stands to profit from the latter, but it is another to tell him where his charitable priorities should lie.
On the merits, Kanter is right. The freedoms of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities are being violated on a massive scale in China, according to overwhelming evidence from media, watchdog organizations and government agencies across the globe. Nike's shifting defense of those violations by one of its largest manufacturers in China before and after The Washington Post exposed it calls into question the company's oversight of ethical standards, as does its lobbying efforts against the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act.
LeBron James and Michael Jordan should know this. The NBA undoubtedly knows this. We could all agree that the subject of a debate over whether to call something a genocide or not is not one worth supporting.
Solving the world's problems is another matter. No one person can be all things to all people. James commented on the Kyle Rittenhouse trial in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and did not comment on missing Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai. He was criticized for both. Hawley chastised the NBA's ties to China when he held a stake in a number of its largest companies, including one that developed and modeled facial-recognition software that could identify Uyghurs — Alibaba, of which Brooklyn Nets owner Joseph Tsai is a co-founder.
Whataboutism solves nothing. It merely circles the conversation without ever entering the real discussion.
Conflict lies in us all, regardless of our intentions. Kanter's Celtics jersey bears a Nike logo. He is working on $100 million in career earnings from the NBA, playing alongside one of Jordan Brand's rising stars, a luxury that affords him the means and opportunity to raise awareness for human rights atrocities. It is not unlike James leveraging Nike to benefit his I Promise School for at-risk children in his native Akron, Ohio.
At least Kanter and the NBA are operating under established guidelines. He is free to challenge China's human rights record. The league will abide the consequences under the philosophy that diplomacy over disengagement is the best path forward, leaving Kanter to navigate a more confrontational road ahead.
There is a point at which this tangled web breaks. If Kanter were to convince players and team personnel around the NBA to join his cause, the Tencent deal would fold once enough teams join the Celtics and Sixers on the list of broadcasts banned from the service. A broader coalition of athletes would hold tremendous sway over Nike's business practices in China. Just imagine that: Democracy at work.
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