A Fan’s Perspective on Lebron’s Hong Kong Desertion and Civil Rights Record

As a die-hard Cleveland sports fan, Lebron James holds a special place in my heart.

Not just for 2016, mind you, but for what else he’s done. His recognition of his own upbringing led to his opening of the I Promise School, a whole-child approach to K-8 schooling, in 2018. He could easily have opened this school as a charter, particularly in an era where charter school proliferation continues to accelerate (and threatens to tear apart the fabric of public education in the process). But instead, he chose to open the I Promise School as a public school, one that receives a substantial ongoing investment from his own pocket as it gets up and running.

And in 2017, after a swastika was painted on his garage door, he spoke powerfully about the state of our racial dialogue in this country, about how that act was a feature rather than a bug of the way we’ve structured our society, in a way that demonstrates the depth of his own thoughts about the serious issues that affect him and his family just as they affect all of us. I praised him effusively at the time for the way he framed his response, and I still believe he handled it incredibly well.

The list is long. Protests of the killings of Eric Garner and Trayvon MartinTwitter snipes at politicians who actively seek to sow misinformation. Lebron James has built up a reputation as somebody who cares about what happens in the world outside of basketball and is willing to use his platform to get others to care as well.

Which brings us to his current comments about Daryl Morey. Lebron claimed, after a testy trip to China, that Morey was not “educated on the situation at hand,” and that “so many people could have been harmed not only financially, physically, emotionally, spiritually.”

Now, there are two readings of what Lebron could mean by the “situation at hand” here. He could mean that Morey’s reading of the struggle for basic rights in Hong Kong is misguided. This seems to be the common interpretation floating around the internet today. This, of course, would itself be either a massive misreading of the situation on the ground in Hong Kong or itself an ill-informed repetition of the mainland government’s propaganda on this issue.

The one that makes more sense to me, given this, is that the “situation at hand” merely refers to what the Lakers and Nets, Lebron included, had to go through during their trip to China. Players from both teams were reportedly angry at the league for demanding that they make themselves available to media questions when league commissioner Adam Silver was not going to do the same to help ease some of the load in navigating a no-win situation for some players. His clarification tweets, which are more cryptic than his original statement, support this.

James reportedly expressed concerns to Silver directly on behalf of the players, stating (correctly) that “it would have been unfair for a kid like Talen Horton-Tucker, who is a 19-year-old rookie, to have to comment about such issues” without any support from the league. Players were quick to point out that a player who had done what Morey had done would likely face some sort of repercussions from the league, and that regardless of the justifiability of those repercussions, Morey did not.

The NBA, of course, is the Big 4 league that has managed to do the most financially right by its middle-class players. The Lebrons and the Stephs and the Kawhis of the world will always do well, but the NBA’s median salary has been lapping the world for a few years now, nearly double that of hockey, triple that of baseball, and quadruple that of the NFL. It’s not hard to connect this to the surge in the salary cap that started in 2015, and it’s not hard to connect that to the explosion in NBA interest in East Asia (and particularly China).

So it makes sense to me, that at the end of a stressful week, Lebron might not be particularly happy about what he had to go through, along with his fellow teammates, as a result of Morey’s tweet. His viewpoint is understandable, and his failure to understand the way his comments would land might be easily chalked up to the stress from that week, to frustration over what he perceived as unfair treatment of the players as a whole, to a number of factors that all caught up to him at once.

But it’s not enough for it to make sense. Something that is explainable isn’t necessarily justifiable or excusable. Jay-Z had plenty of (financial) reason to cozy back up to the NFL despite the partnership’s appearance as an abandonment of Colin Kaepernick, an appearance that still has not been acceptably explained. Lebron talked early in his career about becoming the first sports billionaire, and Forbes estimated two years ago that he was most of the way there (although they noted that a few athletes had already reached that mark).

Is this Lebron as a businessman, or is this him as a business, man?

Why did Lebron invoke financial interests first, before other concerns he’s previously talked about as being above money? Where is the Lebron that understands the legacy and the modern relevance of Emmett Till, who remains in relative obscurity when compared to the leaders of the civil rights movement that he inspired?

James’ jersey is already being burned again, almost a decade after the first time around. The circumstances and the stakes are incredibly different, but the feelings of betrayal for those burning the jerseys are parallel.

Lebron invoked those burning jerseys when he talked about how his 2010 departure from Cleveland affected him personally. He talked about understanding the perspective of “a kid who looked up to an athlete, and that athlete made me want to do better in my own life, and then he left.” And ultimately, he did his best to make that right. He came back, he won a championship, he put his entire body on the line for the people of Cleveland. And when he left again in 2018, it was under much different circumstances and with a career’s worth of good will to take with him.

What will his lesson be from this? He’s shown the capacity to express himself much more eloquently on difficult subjects than plenty of people with greater academic credentials. But his incentives are different this time, and people have a habit of risk aversion in these circumstances.

It’s a difficult spot. But countless athletes have said the same while backing off from the racial justice struggles of the 2010s, and Lebron hasn’t. I only hope he can understand the parallels that this situation has to those and make time for his own reflections accordingly.

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