When Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James warned Monday of financial ramifications related to Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey’s tweet supporting pro-democracy Hong Kong protestors, he may have been referring to his own business interests in China.
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As the NBA’s Chinese sponsors and fans scrutinize the league’s ongoing response to Morey’s remark, James has a clear financial incentive to maintain a positive image in the region. He holds a lifetime deal valued at $1 billion with sports retail giant Nike, which saw its sales in China surge 27 percent to nearly $1.7 billion in its most recent fiscal quarter alone. James’ signature sneaker line is one of Nike’s most prominent offerings.
James’ standing in China could also impact the future efforts of his media production company, SpringHill Entertainment. The firm is producing “Space Jam 2,” the highly anticipated sequel to NBA legend Michael Jordan’s original film, which will seek a massive return from Chinese audiences.
“So many people could have been harmed, not only financially but physically, emotionally, spiritually,” James told reporters on Monday night. “So just be careful what we tweet and we say and what we do even though, yes, we do have freedom of speech. But there can be a lot of negative that comes with that, too.”
Nike earned more than $6 billion in revenue from China during its 2019 fiscal year. While the company has yet to publicly address the NBA’s lingering issues in China, Nike stores in the country pulled Rockets merchandise from shelves in response to Morey’s tweet, according to Reuters.
James’ assertion that Morey was “misinformed” on Hong Kong drew widespread criticism among U.S. politicians and demonstrators on the ground in the city, some of whom were seen burning James’ jersey in protest. The remarks were also seen as a reversal of course for James, who has emerged as a prominent community activist and one of the NBA’s most outspoken voices for social justice causes in the United States, but opted not to weigh in on the Hong Kong protests.
“This statement is unbelievable. “So many people could have been harmed”? By Daryl Morey daring to express sympathy for democracy? News flash: people ARE being harmed - shot, beaten, gassed - right now in Hong Kong. By China. By the Communist Party the NBA is so eager to appease,” Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., wrote on Twitter.
James has repeatedly expressed support for former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who led national anthem protests against social injustice and police brutality. Later, Kaepernick sued the NFL’s owners for allegedly colluding to keep him off the field.
“Kap stood for something that was bigger than him,” James said on his HBO series “The Shop” in March after Kaepernick settled his lawsuit against the NFL. “He sacrificed. How many people can wake up and say ‘You know what, I’ll give up everything that I’ve worked for my whole life, for the better of the conversation? I’m gonna lose everything I’ve got personally to better the conversation?'”
A prominent critic of the Trump administration, James famously called the president a “bum” after he engaged in a war of words with Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry. More recently, James hosted California Gov. Gavin Newsom on “The Shop” for a discussion on his decision to sign a bill allowing the state’s college athletes to sign endorsement deals without penalty.
Social media users pointed out that James tweeted a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. in January 2018, which said “our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” James remarks drew widespread praise on Chinese social media platform Weibo, with one video amassing nearly 100 million views, according to Variety.
James later sought to clarify his remarks on Twitter.
“My team and this league just went through a difficult week. I think people need to understand what a tweet or statement can do to others. And I believe nobody stopped and considered what would happen. Could have waited a week to send it,” he wrote.
The Lakers and Brooklyn Nets participated in the NBA’s promotional tour in China earlier this month, which took place just days after Morey’s tweet. The Chinese government mandated that the NBA cancel media availability for its two preseason games there, including Commissioner Adam Silver’s scheduled press conference.
Nearly all of the NBA’s Chinese sponsors suspended ties with the league over Morey’s tweet, including the league’s exclusive streaming partner, Tencent Sports. The media firm briefly stopped airing NBA games, but has since resumed broadcasts.