"Brutal dictator": NBA gets another chance to defend liberty rather than Xi

(Naohiko Hatta/Kyodo News via AP, File)

Daryl Morey, please pick up the red-white-and-blue courtesy phone. Two years after the NBA sent the then-Houston Rockets manager into its equivalent of a re-education camp for a tweet publicly supporting Hong Kong’s liberty, the league faces yet another inflection point on China. Boston Celtics center Enes Kanter defended Tibet on social media while calling Xi Jinping a “brutal dictator,” and … here we go again:

Boston Celtics games were abruptly pulled from the Chinese internet on Thursday after a center on the team, Enes Kanter, said on social media that the country’s leader, Xi Jinping, was a “brutal dictator,” citing his government’s repressive policies in Tibet. …

In a video that was posted on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram on Wednesday, Kanter spoke into the camera for nearly three minutes and decried what he called a “cultural genocide” in Tibet.

“I say, ‘Shame on the Chinese government,’” he said, wearing a T-shirt with the image of the Dalai Lama, whom Beijing considers a criminal separatist. “The Chinese dictatorship is erasing Tibetan identity and culture.”

Another social media post by Kanter on Wednesday showed off sneakers emblazoned with Tibetan flag motifs and the words “Free Tibet.”

The ever-vigilant Big Brother in China didn’t take long to make its displeasure known:

By Thursday, recent Celtics games were marked as unavailable for replay through Tencent, the Chinese internet giant that has partnered with the N.B.A. to stream its games in the country. The website for Tencent Sports also indicated that upcoming Celtics games would not be livestreamed.

In an almost-aside, the New York Times notes that Tencent isn’t streaming the 76ers games either since they hired Morey as its president of league operations. Xi has a loooong memory. It’s also a reminder that the league’s attempts to appease Xi — up and down its entire structure, it seemed — almost two years ago to the day were doomed to failure. You can’t appease a totalitarian, after all, which was the point made repeatedly by the NBA’s critics

It’s also worth noting that Kanter is made of stronger stuff than most of his colleagues. He’s criticized Turkey’s Islamist strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan on line, resulting in the loss of his Turkish passport and earning him a criminal investigation in Ankara. In any other era, Kanter would be hailed as someone who speaks truth to power.

In the NBA, however, that only gets hailed as long as you don’t speak real truth to real power, by which is meant economic power. To a very large extent, the same is true in the entertainment industry, which also has had its lips surgically attached to Xi’s backside for a very long time. The league made that clear two years ago when it sacrificed Morey on the altar of the Chinese market rather than defend free speech and political activism when it came to real oppression. Does anyone remember commissioner Adam Silver explaining that Morey failed to recognize his freedom to keep his mouth shut? We certainly remember it. Xi does too.

Anyway, Kanter has given the league another opportunity to do the right thing. Theoretically, anyway. It’s more likely that Kanter will get the Morey treatment from the league and his fellow players, who can almost certainly be counted on again to rush to Xi’s defense to protect all those schweeet Xi-bucks. They’ve already sold out their fans to Xi once, but Kanter might not be so quiet about it this time around. Let’s hope to be pleasantly surprised.