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lebron james china

A man wearing a LeBron James jersey wraps himself with a Chinese national flag outside the exhibition game between the Nets and Lakers in Shanghai. (Aly Song/Reuters)

For years, he stood tall—LeBron James, that is—speaking out and engaging in a variety of progressive matters, most recently in support of college athletes’ quest to get a piece of college sports’ financial pie. But after his comments in China this week, the question is: For what does LeBron stand?

There’s no other conclusion. It’s the result of James’ comment about Houston Rockets’ General Manager Daryl Morey. Morey spoke strongly in support of Hong Kong protesters, something to which the Chinese took exception. Morey, LeBron told the media, was ‘misinformed.” The lingering question is, how so? NBA Commissioner Adam Silver attempted to reframe Morey’s comments as a free speech issue. That’s certainly one way to approach it, but James’ approach is just plain perplexing.

By saying what he did, LeBron James turned his back on the tradition of American athletics who have stood for social justice.

At its core, the NBA-China conundrum reflects profound cultural differences between the two countries—differences that cry out for mutual understanding. Mutual understanding could have been the basis for moving forward, but sadly that didn’t (and probably won’t) happen. Worse yet, in saying what he said, James positioned himself on the wrong side of two other matters.

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First, those in executive positions rarely speak out on issues of social concern. When they do, you often wonder why. A few years ago, Jerry Jones and other NFL owners knelt with players before games presumably in the name of social justice. But it didn’t take long–stimulated by a few tweets and other public statements by Trump–for owners to decide that they shouldn’t be seen aligning with Colin Kaepernick and his allies. But Jerry Jones was nowhere near the NBA-China situation. Instead, we had an executive (Morey) who spoke authentically about a matter of social concern. Rather than applaud Morey for leadership, James saw him as misguided.

Second, by saying what he did, LeBron James turned his back on the tradition of American athletics who have stood for social justice. That long and glorious tradition extends back to the days of Jackie Robinson, the ’68 Olympics, Ali’s refusal to serve, and onward to contemporary efforts led by Jim Brown, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and others—initiatives often led by African American superstars.

LeBron used to be in that leadership vanguard, but now I wonder where he fits. James not only tarnished his reputation as a progressive figure on the American sports scene, but he also hurt the NBA. NBA stars and coaches often demonstrate social leadership in ways that those in other pro leagues rarely do. James did an about-face.

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LeBron James—a voice you could rely on—is now a voice you may want to mute.

Frank Fear

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