NBA players face ethical dilemma over China shoe deals
Should social justice go beyond U.S. borders?
“When you look around, and see some of the things that’s going on, you almost just don’t know how to respond to it or what to do about it,” NBA Portland Trail Blazer star Damian Lillard told The Undefeated in a phone interview a year ago. “Being somebody that uses my platform and has actually been out there literally marching, you look around and just think. I’m not sure exactly what to do going forward, but I think whatever it is, it has to be with action.”
Fast forward to today and ESPN reports that 17 NBA players continue to have multi-million dollar contracts with Chinese companies (Li-Ning, Anta, Peak and 361 Degrees) accused of being complicit in human rights abuses. Back in December 2021, Congress passed a bipartisan bill banning the import of goods from Xinjiang, where the U.S. Government has declared China is committing genocide and forcing Uyghurs and members of other minorities into slave labor for cotton production. As the United Nations finalizes its report on the abuses in Xinjiang, NBA players such as retired star, Dwyane Wade, and Golden State Warrior star, Klay Thompson, are faced with an ethical dilemma. Or are they?
"Is Congress telling the Marriotts, the Apples and all the other corporate interests not to do business there?" an anonymous NBA agent.
Back on August 26, 2020, the Milwaukee Bucks voted to boycott game 5 of their playoff series against the Orlando Magic, in response to Jacob Blake being shot in the back multiple times by police, less than 50 miles from their home stadium. The Bucks did not inform the rest of the league; they took swift action and the other 5 teams (including the Los Angeles Lakers and Portland Trail Blazers) to play that night followed their lead. That night, CBS News reported Lakers star “LeBron James was particularly firm in his desire to shut down the rest of the postseason, citing that he didn't believe team owners were doing enough..and Kawhi Leonard was on LeBron's side in being "adamant" about canceling the rest of the playoffs.” Three of the NBA’s biggest stars - Lebron James, Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo - each had a legitimate chance to win a championship that season and were willing to take a stand for social justice instead.
Within 24 hours of the Bucks game 5 boycott, NBA Hall of Famer Michael Jordan acted as a liaison between owners and players and helped resume the pandemic bubble playoffs. When the 2020 NBA season resumed in the Orlando bubble, Black Lives Matter protests were spreading all over the nation, and the world. ESPN reported at the time “Demanding societal change and ending racial injustice has been a major part of the NBA restart. "Black Lives Matter" is painted on the arena courts, players are wearing jerseys with messages urging change, and players and coaches have repeatedly spent time speaking about social causes that matter to them, ranging from voting to education reform to combating racial inequality and police brutality.” The compromise players reached with owners prior to resuming the playoffs:
Establish a social justice coalition to help increase access to voting, promote civic engagement, and advocate for meaningful police and criminal justice reform.
In every city where the franchise owns the arena, facilities will be used as voting locations for the 2020 general election.
Players around the league went beyond wearing a social justice message on their jersey - they protested peacefully in their communities, negotiated with NBA owners to promote civic engagement and used their personal platforms to continue advocating for social justice..in the United States.
A rare NBA player for being so outspoken while actively playing in the league is Boston Celtics player Enes Freedom. He has repeatedly used his social media accounts to advocate for social justice around the world - from writing “Hypocrite Nike” and “Made with Slave Labor” on his game sneakers to recently calling out his teammates featured in ESPN’s article whose shoes are made with forced labor.
Individuals in the NBA protesting against China comes at a price. When Enes Freedom publicly criticized China in October 2021, ESPN’s content-sharing partner Tencent pulled Celtics games from its streaming service. That same partner stopped presenting Philadelphia 76ers games after their Head of Basketball Operations, Daryl Morey, tweeted his support for the Hong Kong protest in 2019 - “Fight for Freedom, Stand with Hong Kong.” NBA Commissioner, Adam Silver, to his credit remains resolute in his stance that each member of the NBA has a right to free expression and the league would not punish anyone who exercises their civic right. More than just words - the NBA reportedly could lose more than $200 million in their partnership with China from Morey’s tweet.
Perhaps it isn’t fair to ask players to do what many multinational corporations do not, which is to reevaluate where they do business based on purported social values. But as Damian Lillard put it so well a year ago:
“Being somebody that uses my platform and has actually been out there literally marching, you look around and just think. I’m not sure exactly what to do going forward, but I think whatever it is, it has to be with action.”
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