Heard on the Hill

LeBron James comments intensify debate over freedom, trade

Hawley joins chorus criticizing basketball superstar during NBA-China controversy

Republican Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri had harsh words for LeBron James. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Basketball megastar LeBron James has finally leaped into the NBA’s ongoing controversy over Houston Rockets executive Daryl Morey’s tweet in support of Chinese protesters. Some critics, including Sen. Josh Hawley, find James’s stance sorely lacking. And the full House is also on record, passing a trio of bills Tuesday aimed at helping Hong Kong democracy activists in their fight to preserve political freedoms from encroachment by mainland China.

“I don’t want to get into a ...  feud with Daryl Morey but I believe he wasn’t educated on the situation at hand and he spoke,” James told reporters Monday ahead of a preseason game with the Golden State Warriors. “So many people could have been harmed, not only financially, but physically, emotionally, spiritually.”

The controversy began Oct. 5 when Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong,” in response to ongoing Chinese protests, before deleting the message.

Following Morey’s tweet, the executive was soon denounced by the Chinese Basketball Association, the Chinese government and Houston Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta, who said Morey doesn’t speak for the team.

James seemed to be suggesting that Morey’s comments put the NBA in a difficult spot and could cost the league tens or hundreds of millions of dollars. The NBA has made expansion into the lucrative Chinese market a top priority as it tries to grow the game globally.

After seeing criticism of his initial comments, James followed up later, tweeting, “Let me clear up the confusion. I do not believe there was any consideration for the consequences and ramifications of the tweet. I’m not discussing the substance. Others can talk About that.” But the damage was done. 

The response to Morey’s comments could have far-reaching consequences for the business relationship between the league and China, affecting everything from shoe deals to a league salary cap.

Hawley called James’s comments “unbelievable” and “garbage” before questioning whether James was “educated” on the situation.

“Why don’t you go to Hong Kong?” the Missouri Republican tweeted. “Why don’t you meet the people there risking their lives for their most basic liberties?... News flash: people ARE being harmed — shot, beaten, gassed —right now in Hong Kong. By China. By the Communist Party the NBA is so eager to appease.”

On Monday, more than 130,000 protesters rallied in Hong Kong to urge Congress to pass the legislation the House cleared Tuesday. The Senate has its own version in the works. 

Hawley has been a longtime critic of China and its trade practices and has been all over the NBA for its capitulation to the Chinese government.

“Doing business in China is one thing, but for the NBA to kowtow to the demands of one of the world’s most brutal regimes in the pursuit of profit is, frankly, revolting,” he wrote in a letter to Commissioner Adam Silver calling on the NBA to cancel its remaining preseason games in China. “You know better.”

But he isn’t the only lawmaker on the NBA’s case. A bipartisan coalition including Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a New York Democrat, sent a letter to Silver criticizing the league for not sticking up for Morey.

James is also drawing the ire of fellow NBA player Enes Kanter, a Turkish national who now plays center for the Boston Celtics. Without mentioning James by name, Kanter tweeted “Freedom is not free” after listing the adversity he’s faced because of his outspokenness against the Turkish government.

Kanter is fierce in his disdain for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who revoked the basketball player’s passport in 2017 and put a warrant out for the 27-year-old’s arrest, making it difficult for the basketball player to travel internationally for work.

This summer, Kanter was even forced to move a free camp at the Islamic Center of Long Island after threats from the Turkish consulate in New York. After an assist from New York Democratic Rep. Kathleen Rice, Kanter found a new venue on Long Island.

Rachel Oswald contributed to this story.

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