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Stand with Kanter: Eject Chinese censorship from the NBA

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Enes Kanter. (Twitter, Enes Kanter photo)

Enes Kanter. (Twitter, Enes Kanter photo)

The “Turkish Warrior,” human rights fighter, and Boston Celtics star, Enes Kanter, has only been allowed to set foot on the court twice this season in 13 games, for a total of 10 minutes, while China has banned video streaming of Celtics games to prevent citizens from getting a glimpse of his dissident shoe collection.

Many fans are speculating that Kanter is benched because he spoke out against “brutal dictator Xi Jinping” and in support of Taiwanese, Tibetans, Hongkongers, and Uyghurs. On Nov. 10th, Kanter told CNN that during the first game of the season, NBA officials threatened to ban and fine him if he didn’t remove his “Free Tibet” shoes, though they later backed off after realizing that he wasn’t breaking any rules.

On Nov. 14th, Kanter apparently confirmed his fans’ suspicions when he posted a flipbook animation on social media showing him slam dunk a basketball into Xi Jinping’s face. He wrote, “Keep limiting me on the court, I will expose you off the court.”

The NBA and the Celtics have remained completely silent, offering no explanation for why Kanter is sitting on the bench. All we know for sure is that his lack of playing time is disappointing to all of his new fans, which includes the president of Taiwan, who recorded a video in which she personally thanked him for his strong support.

Pro-Beijing keyboard warriors have been peppering social media with propaganda, suggesting that Kanter is not playing because he lacks skill and provides little value to the Celtics.

Such arguments are unconvincing.

Last season, the 6’10’’ big man put up respectable numbers playing for the Portland Trailblazers, a team that made the playoffs, finishing with a record of 40 wins and 32 losses. Kanter played every game and averaged a double-double: 11 rebounds (the 7th highest in the NBA) and 11.2 points.

Most impressively, he set an NBA season record by pulling down 30 rebounds in a single game. He is only the fourth player in the last two decades to accomplish this feat.

At 29 years old, Kanter has a lot of good years left in his career. However, he is courageously putting it all on the line by speaking up for victims of the most powerful authoritarian regime on the planet.

Kanter told CNN:

“I believe that God gave me this platform to be the voice of all those innocent people out there who don’t have a voice. So I was like, you know what, I understand that this could affect a lot, but I’m just going to be the one, the first one to step up and bring all the human rights violations that China is doing [into the spotlight], and like I said in my tweet, I don’t care about your endorsement deals, I don’t care about your money, or I don’t care about any kind of businesses that you are doing. If you are abusing people’s rights, I’m going to say something. To me, human rights are way more important than your money, your endorsement deals, or everything you can give me.”

Critics, such as China’s foreign minister, have argued that Kanter is an opportunist just “trying to get attention.”

However, Kanter has been speaking out against human rights abuses committed by the authoritarian government of his home country, Turkey, for a decade. His persistent activism has cost him dearly. Four years ago, the Turkish government canceled his passport, accused him of being a terrorist involved in a failed military coup attempt, and has since issued 10 warrants for his arrest.

Kanter denies the terrorism allegations, saying, “The only thing I terrorize is the basketball rim.” He points out that “I don’t even have a parking ticket in the U.S. I have always been a law-abiding resident.”

Because of his outspokenness, Kanter has received death threats and cannot travel overseas with his team due to fears that he could be assassinated. His family in Turkey was pressured to publicly disown him, and he has been unable to speak with them for several years out of concern that they would be immediately arrested. His father has already served time in prison, and, according to Kanter, it is “just because he is my dad.”

Kanter has clearly demonstrated that he cannot be intimidated into silence. The best that the Chinese government can hope for is to weaponize its financial power to destroy Kanter’s NBA career, de-platform him, and thus make an example out of him.

In China, this is called “killing the chicken to scare the monkey” (殺雞儆猴). The aim would be to frighten other potential critics into silence, a deliberate attempt to undermine free speech.

By censoring every game that Kanter appears in, the Chinese government will be able to turn Kanter into a financial liability for any team that he plays for. When his contract expires at the end of this season, any team that signs him will risk losing whatever revenue it was previously earning from China’s market of 1.4 billion people, a sum which is likely far greater than whatever financial value that Kanter alone can bring to the table. If no team signs him next year, Kanter would be forced into retirement.

The NBA consequently faces a moral dilemma. It can quietly take China’s money and throw Kanter under the bus (along with Taiwanese, Tibetans, Hongkongers, and Uyghurs), or it can stand in solidarity with Kanter by expressing robust support for human rights, democracy, and freedom of speech — including for people who live under the shadow of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

The right thing to do ought to be self-evident to every player, coach, manager, and owner.

Last year, the NBA enthusiastically supported the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement by allowing players to put social justice messages not only on their shoes but also on the backs of their jerseys. The phrase “Black Lives Matter” was even painted on the courts.

Messages that the NBA approved for jerseys included “Say Their Names,” “How Many More,” “I Can’t Breathe,” “Vote,” “Justice,” “Liberation,” “Equality,” and “Freedom.” On shoes, some players wrote the names of victims of police violence while others wrote messages such as “Ready for Change.”

In the same way that the NBA embraced the BLM movement, it can and should join Kanter in standing up for the rights of people who are oppressed by the Chinese government. With the Beijing Winter Olympics approaching, now is a better time than ever. Players from all 30 teams could write slogans on their shoes such as “Uyghur Lives Matter,” “Free Tibet,” “Liberate Hong Kong,” “Stand With Taiwan,” and “No Beijing 2022.”

Undoubtedly, all NBA games would immediately be censored in China, and it would be costly. However, the NBA can afford to have ethics, as the average player’s salary is more than US$8 million (NT$222 million).

China’s authoritarian government should not be allowed to buy the NBA’s silence, and the NBA should not be complicit in a CCP-orchestrated attack on the career of one of its players — a naked attempt to undermine free speech and cover up its ongoing industrial-scale human rights abuses.

Until the NBA gathers the organizational will to take a principled stand, fans should call out its hypocrisy and continue supporting the MVP of human rights advocacy, Enes Kanter.

Lindell Lucy is an American based in Tokyo, where he teaches high school economics. He has a B.A. in philosophy from Stanford University and is currently studying international relations at the Harvard Extension School.

Updated : 2021-11-28 02:32 GMT+08:00