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LeBron James reportedly felt like Adam Silver would have fined a player for tweeting what Daryl Morey did. Silver disagreed, citing NBA players’ criticism of Donald Trump

The motivation behind the way LeBron James has handled the controversy in China is becoming clear.

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Los Angeles Lakers v Brooklyn Nets - NBA China Games 2019 Photo by Yanshan Zhang/Getty Images

From the very beginning of the NBA’s controversy with China, the central battle was between the NBA’s unending desire for growth, and the definition of freedom of speech. For a little while, some thought LeBron James would make a stand in the defense of the latter, but they’ve been sadly mistaken, with his defense coming in much more strongly of the former.

According to Dave McMenamin of ESPN, he ratcheted even that defense up another notch while in China, going so far as to even suggest that perhaps Daryl Morey should be punished for having sent his now-infamous tweet. The report stops short of saying James demanded this, but only just short.

James’ first instinct, to push back on commissioner Adam Silver’s request that the players carry the burden of ambassadorship, was correct, to be clear:

In the ordinary setting the commissioner laid out the extraordinary situation, spending 10 to 15 minutes, according to a source present, appearing “vulnerable and transparent” as he detailed the issues and challenges facing the league.

He expressed to the players that the best thing for the league would be for the Nets and Lakers to become ambassadors for the sport, to show a positive front and face the questions that would come from the throng of nearly 200 reporters set to descend upon the hotel in mere hours. One of the league’s core values is freedom of expression, Silver said, “it’s what you guys stand for.” And to not speak, he said, could lead to criticism for staying silent.

Frankly, it’s surprising that Silver, a commissioner known for his treatment and support of the players, would make such an ask of them, given how obviously volatile the situation was. James was absolutely right to decline this request. There’s just no way that ends well.

Where this falls off the rails for James is in what heavily implied he thought Silver should do next:

Silver opened up the floor. James raised his hand.

His question was related to Morey -- and the commissioner’s handling of the Rockets’ GM. James, to paraphrase, told Silver he knew that if a player caused the same type of uproar from something he said or tweeted, the player wouldn’t be able to skate on it. There would be some type of repercussion. So, James wanted to know, what was Silver going to do about it in Morey’s case?

Silver pushed back, reminding the players that the league never doled out discipline when they publicly criticized President Donald Trump. Morey was exercising the same liberty when he challenged China. Regardless of the financial fallout of one versus the other, that’s not what should matter. He might have disliked the ramifications of Morey’s tweet, but he would defend his right to say it.


With that as the new backdrop to James’ thoughts on Morey not understanding the ramifications to his tweet, it’s become abundantly clear what James seems to have cared about most while the league has been embroiled in this controversy. And it isn’t player safety while in China.

To this point, players have gone so far as to say the trip was still quite pleasant, but if it was indeed the safety of everyone involved in the trip to China that concerned James, he should have taken his original rebuke of speaking on behalf of the league even further to asking that everyone return to the states.

If LeBron was concerned about how the Chinese government and people would respond to Morey’s stance, then he wouldn’t have pushed back against learning more about the entire situation as quickly as he did yesterday.

So, that leaves the financial impact Morey’s tweet could have had against the NBA and, obviously, James’ own personal wealth along with any other players who take in money from China.

And here’s the thing: That’s fine! I mean, it isn’t fine by most ethical standards to look the other way as you benefit to the extent that he and the rest of the NBA does financially while human atrocities take place in China, but it’s also nowhere near out of the ordinary. Plenty of corporations do business in China, and the hypocrisy of this entire situation is as pervasive as ever.

The reason James has been singled out the way he has by those who normally support him (an important thing to point out here, as there are so many who remain disingenuous all-around as it pertains to criticizing him — shouts to Ted Cruz), is that he has not merely spearheaded the modern movement of athletes speaking up for social issues, but literally profited off it.

This literally happened today:

And again, James is unto himself a corporation. He is a brand. Corporations and brands working in the interest of their bottom line above all else is by no means a mind-boggling story. But he claimed to be different.

Maybe it was naive of us to believe that. Given the way this has played out, it almost assuredly was. That doesn’t make any of the work he’s done previously any less impressive, nor does it change how he has positively impacted the lives of countless people affected by the injustices he cares about.

But as he has cited previously, injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. If James is indeed more than an athlete, not only can he remain actively under-informed on this subject, but he definitely can’t suggest that an American citizen should be punished for their expression of free speech.

James has laid the precedent here to be held to a higher standard than his contemporaries. He’s fallen well short of that standard on this issue. It doesn’t make him any different from any of the other people or companies that turn a blind eye to the injustices carried out by the Chinese government, but that isn’t the point. He claimed to be different, and it turns out he isn’t.

For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. Yell at the author on Twitter @AnthonyIrwinLA.

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