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What happened to LeBron James the social justice champion?

LeBron James took issue with the content and timing of tweets by Rockets GM Daryl Morey.Zhong Zhi/Getty Images

LeBron James had more than a week to consider his first public comments on the NBA’s China controversy. He decided to direct his ire at the man who spoke up for Hong Kong rather than risk his business relationship with the dictatorial regime responsible for suppressing the rights of the people in Hong Kong.

James had days and days to craft a reaction to the controversy that has roiled the NBA. He decided it was wiser to attack the constitutionally guaranteed right of a fellow American and fellow NBA employee to express an opinion than it was to disagree with the Communist nation that stands in opposition to that fundamental American principle.


James had a few more hours to realize the impact of his poorly constructed, indefensible shot at Houston Rockets executive Daryl Morey. But rather than recognize the damage he continued to do to the man who inadvertently set off this firestorm with a simple retweet of an image that read “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong,” James instead showed concern for the damage Morey’s tweet would do to his own bottom line.

Like apologizing for offending someone rather than for the content of what was actually offensive to begin with, James pointed his arrows the wrong way. And while he is absolutely entitled — just like Morey — to say what he wants, and even to not have an opinion on the relationship between Hong Kong and mainland China, he has to know how bad his position looks in relation to the social justice warrior he has positioned himself to be.

The man who rallied public opinion when he fought back against being told to “shut up and dribble” by a combative conservative talk show host essentially told Morey, the Rockets general manager, to do the same.


That, if you ask me, is un-American.

“Yes, we do have freedom of speech,” James told reporters in a hallway inside LA’s Staples Center Monday night. “But at times, there are ramifications for the negative that can happen when you’re not thinking about others, when you only think about yourself.

“I don’t want to get into a word or sentence feud with Daryl Morey, but I believe he wasn’t educated on the situation at hand, and he spoke. So many people could have been harmed, not only financially but physically, emotionally, spiritually.

“So just be careful what we tweet and what we say and what we do. Even though yes, we do have freedom of speech, it can be a lot of negative that comes with it.”

Of course everything we say has ramifications, positive and negative, and we all can receive either backlash or support from the people in our personal or professional lives for something we say or believe. But that’s the beauty of being free to say it anyway, with the full confidence we will not be punished by our government for having said opinion.

For James to try to parse his comments later by insisting, via tweet, that it was the timing, not substance, of Morey’s retweet that bothered him only made his position worse.

Sometimes, the timing is the point. Every social justice movement that has made a difference in this world does so when the timing is most uncomfortable for those it’s trying to change.


“I do not believe there was any consideration for the consequences and ramifications of the tweet,” James later tweeted. “I’m not discussing the substance. Others can talk about that.

“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.”

A demonstrator stomped on Lebron James jerseys during a rally in Hong Kong Tuesday.mark schiefelbein/Associated Press

Perhaps James would be wise to set up a meeting with Celtics center Enes Kanter, who knows more than most of us about the perils of free speech. Unable to return to his home country of Turkey because of the dictatorial regime of Recep Erdogan, Kanter used his own social media channels to weigh in overnight.

Listing what he has been through during his exile — being unable to see his family in five years, seeing his father jailed back home, having his passport revoked, living under an international arrest warrant, and facing attacks and death threats all because he has spoken out against Erdogan — he closed with an all-caps conclusion:


Indeed it is not. Neither are fancy NBA sneakers, or pricey movie deals and tickets, or lucrative international promotional events, or big-money television deals and streaming services to broadcast NBA games in China. In the end, the money made from all of those channels meant more to James than Morey did.


Since this controversy began, as NBA commissioner Adam Silver tried (in vain) to straddle the line between protecting his league’s business interests and Morey’s personal right to express an opinion in the otherwise most free-speaking sports league we have, there was one voice we waited to hear.

One guy we thought would get it, would be big enough to stand in the face of the worldwide bullying by China and maybe make a difference for the people of Hong Kong.

And then LeBron spoke. What a disappointment.

Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at tara.sullivan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.