The Boston Celtics’ Enes Kanter is making headlines not just for his performances on the court, but for his denouncement of the social injustices committed worldwide by corrupt government regimes and global conglomerates alike.
Whilst a man of Turkish origin, Kanter’s Turkish passport was invalidated in 2017 after he called President Erdoğan the “Hitler of our century.” Kanter has since been subject to innumerable death threats from Erdogan’s supporters, and his family, still based in Turkey, remain under the watchful eye of the totalitarian Turkish state. But that doesn’t deter Kanter from “[trying] to be the voice of those innocent people [who are] getting kidnapped, put into jail, getting tortured or raped.”
As of late, Kanter has centred his criticisms on the Nike brand and the alleged abuse of its Uyghur factory workers in China, as well as on one of the company’s most famous ambassadors, LeBron James. Whilst Nike has reiterated that they are “committed to ethical and responsible manufacturing”, and that they “[have] not found evidence of employment of Uyghurs, or other ethnic minorities from Xinjiang”, according to a study conducted by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in 2020, it appears the contrary is true. The ASPI claim that Nike, amongst other notable clothing brands such as Adidas and Puma, are clients of the Haoyuanpeng Clothing Manufacturing Co. Ltd: a factory in the eastern Anhui province which is said to ‘employ’ Uyghur labour workers from Xinjiang to work under conditions “that strongly suggest forced labour.”
It was 2019 when LeBron James publicly came to the defence of China after the Houston Rockets’ general manager, Daryl Morey, condemned the Chinese government’s control and restriction of democracy in Hong Kong. James said, “I believe [Morey] wasn’t educated about the situation at hand and he spoke.” It’s comments like this, and James’ wilful ignorance to the human-rights violations committed by the brands of which he is endorsing, which has sparked the feud between himself and Kanter.
On November 19th, during his matchup against LeBron’s LA Lakers, Enes Kanter wore custom trainers which portrayed James, surrounded by bags of money, bowing down before President Xi Jinping of China. Having tweeted an image of the shoes the night prior, Kanter wrote, “Money over Morals for the “King”. Sad and disgusting how these athletes pretend they care about social justice. Did you educate yourself about the slave labour that made your shoes?”
Kanter’s point is whilst LeBron James and Nike may be quick to show solidarity with movements such as Black Lives Matter ,as they should, of course, it’s nevertheless ironic that both parties turn a blind eye to humanitarian matters that are external to the West. To not give the same energy in the face of literal mass genocide and slave labour, just because it’s not on your doorstep and because doing so will harm your pockets, is wrong. “Nike [is] the biggest sponsor of the NBA. In America, they stand with Black Lives Matter, Latino community, No Asian Hate, and the LGBTQ community, but when it comes to China, they remain silent.”
Some might argue that it’s not LeBron James’ job to speak out on such issues. After all, ‘he’s just a basketball player, isn’t he?’ Well, yes and no. Firstly, by speaking out against one social injustice but not the other, LeBron is visibly picking and choosing when to do so, which ultimately only makes matters worse than if he were to avoid comment altogether. Secondly, when someone reaches the level of fame and influence of a LeBron James, and has millions of people, including children, looking up to them as a role model, there is surely a degree of responsibility which that person must then take when associating themselves with other people and brands.
In response to Kanter, LeBron said, “[Kanter] is definitely not someone I will give my energy to. Trying to use my name to create an opportunity for himself. He’s always kind of had a word or two to say in my direction and as a man, if you got an issue with somebody, you really come up to him. He had his opportunity tonight. I seen him in the hallway, he walked right by me.”
To attempt to turn this into a battle of masculinity by questioning Enes Kanter’s manhood, shows more than anything that James has either completely missed Kanter’s point, or more likely, is deliberately living with wool over his eyes. It seems that ‘the King’, in his own words, “wasn’t educated about the situation at hand” when he signed a $30m per year ‘lifetime’ contract with Nike in 2016.