Boston Celtics player, Enes Kanter, recently criticized LeBron James on Twitter for claiming to care about social justice while also partnering with Nike, which uses forced Uyghur labor. Kanter posted photos of basketball shoes painted to illustrate his point about James as beholden to “Big Boss China” and valuing “money over morals.”
Kanter has used his painted shoes and sports platform to highlight China’s mounting human rights abuses. Tackling threats to democracy in Taiwan and Hong Kong and the forced labor and organ harvesting of Falun Gong, Uyghurs, Christians and Tibetans, Kanter is one of the only professional athletes using his platform to bring attention to China’s human rights abuses.
Kanter’s criticisms have also exposed the deep financial ties between American entertainment and China. Actors, athletes, studios and other sectors of American entertainment adjust their speech and content for fear of financial fallout with China while ignoring abuses.
“China uses money to buy silence. There are so many athletes and actors out there scared to say a word,” Kanter told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour. “I don’t care about your money. … If you’re abusing people’s rights, I’m going to say something.”
Kanter, who is from Turkey, began speaking about corruption and human rights abuses in his own country. As a result of his advocacy, Kanter was exiled from Turkey in 2017 and labeled a terrorist. Since then, the Turkish government has issued several warrants for Kanter’s arrest in an attempt to silence him.
China has attempted to suppress Kanter’s voice. In October, Kanter wore “Free Tibet” shoes during a game and called President Xi Jinping a “brutal dictator.” The next morning, Tencent, a Chinese tech giant and partner with the NBA, banned Boston Celtics games from streaming live or being replayed on their platform.
Tencent’s ban on Celtics games was a large revenue loss for the NBA, costing them upwards of one billion dollars. NBA officials begged Kanter to remove his “Free Tibet” shoes during a game because of an influx of angry calls.
“Is there a rule that I’m breaking by wearing these shoes?” Kanter recounted to Amanpour. The NBA officials said no but added that he could be banned for not complying.
“Whoever your boss is,” he responded, “go tell them I’m ready to get banned.”
It’s possible Kanter’s basketball career could go the way of Daryl Morey because of what he’s cost the NBA. Former NBA coach Daryl Morey tweeted support for Hong Kong in 2019. China responded by banning NBA games from China’s government programming and removing advertising, which cost the NBA millions. Morey backtracked his tweet and in 2020 stepped down from coaching.
Kanter’s playing time has plummeted in the past year. In 2020 he played in all 72 games. This season he’s appeared so far in three out of 14 games. Kanter has suggested that the reduction of playing time is because of his strong stance against the Chinese government. Unlike Morey, Kanter is not backing down, even if he seems to be standing alone.
“Keep limiting me on the court, I will expose you off the court,” Kanter tweeted.
Regardless of these threats to his career, Kanter has admirably prioritized human rights over deals with China-entangled companies.
“People think I do politics, I don’t do politics. I do human rights,” Kanter told CNN. “To me human rights is way more important than your money or endorsement deals or everything you could give me.”