UPDATED: Less than a week after his team’s games were pulled from Tencent-run streaming platforms in China over his criticism of the country’s treatment of Tibetans, Boston Celtics Center Enes Kanter upped the ante, calling out the country and Nike over treatment of ethnic minority Uigher workers in factories there.
“Dear @Nike,” tweeted Kanter today, “Stop the modern day SLAVERY, now!!!”
The Washington Post published an exposé last year documenting what appeared to be forced labor conditions among Uigher workers at one Chinese factory that supplies the sneaker giant. Nike shoes are, of course, worn by most NBA players in every game. Nike also supplies the league’s uniforms and provides its top stars with massively lucrative shoe contracts.
Nike told the post of the Uigher report last year that “we respect human rights in our extended value chain, and always strive to conduct business ethically and responsibly.” A spokeswoman added that its suppliers are “strictly prohibited from using any type of prison, forced, bonded or indentured labor.” In the months since, there have been reports that suppliers for Nike and other U.S.-based companies have begun shunning Uigher labor.
Whatever the case, Kanter’s protest got the Celtics banned from streaming services in China last week. There is no indication those games have been restored in what is inarguably the NBA’s most important overseas market. And Kanter’s comments today about Nike vis a vis Uighers likely won’t help.
In 2019, a single tweet from then-Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey supporting pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong got the entire league nixed from national broadcaster CCTV. It was over a year before China would again allow league games on state TV. It is unclear what impact Kanter’s continuing criticism may have.
Boston Celtics President of Basketball Operations Brad Stevens came out in support of Kanter’s stance on Friday saying, “My conversation with Enes was real short and sweet, and that is we’re always going to support any of our players and their right to freedom of speech and expression. And I think in my experience with the Celtics and the NBA, that’s the way it’s been and that’s the way it’ll continue to be.”
The 2019 Morey episode showed the many knock-on effects of anyone speaking out against China. Because so much money flows in from the nation — not just in terms of broadcast fees and commercials, but in terms of shoe and clothing sales — leading players like LeBron James struggled over whether to publicly support Morey, and faced blowback for not doing so. ESPN parent Disney, which has invested billions in NBA rights, also depends on China as a key market for motion pictures and theme parks, making it reluctant to ever tip its hand.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver in April described the league’s relationship with the Middle Kingdom as “complicated.” He said he was “a believer in soft power,” and that “ultimately we’re an export business. We export American basketball to China, and I would say what comes with it is American culture as well.” According to Silver, “basketball, sports, culture, are an opportunity to bring people together.”
Kanter also posted a video today in which he says, “When it comes to China, Nike remains silent. You do not address police brutality in China. You do not speak about discrimination about the LGBTQ community. You do not say a word about the oppression of minorities in China. You are scared to speak up. Who makes your shoes in China? Do you even know? There are so many forced labor factories in China. For instance, Uyghur forced labor. A modern day slavery, and it’s happening right now in China.”
— Enes Kanter (@EnesKanter) October 25, 2021
PREVIOUSLY on Wednesday: Enes Kanter and the NBA’s Boston Celtics opened ESPN’s regular-season schedule with a dramatic, double-overtime game won by the New York Knicks. But social media posts by Kanter before the game wound up being much more consequential.
The player’s advocacy for Tibet and against the Chinese government and “brutal dictator” Xi Jinping resulted in the Celtics being wiped off the internet in China. The team’s games were yanked from Tencent-run streaming platforms in the latest in an ongoing tit-for-tat between the country and the league.
“Under the Chinese government’s brutal rule, Tibetan people’s basic rights and freedoms are nonexistent,” Kanter said in the video posted to Twitter and Instagram. (See it below.) After the video, in which he wore a T-shirt depicting Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, he posted images of shoes designed by China-born dissident Badiucao, an artist based in Australia.
Chinese officials said Kanter was out for attention and his complaints “not worth responding to.”
Neither the NBA nor the Celtics has offered any comment as of yet.
Kanter, who is of Turkish heritage, has previously incurred the enmity of his native country’s government as well, particularly for criticism of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
While the league has been popular in China for the last several years, the nation and the league have had a few tangles, threatening valuable revenue streams for the NBA. Support for pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong expressed by former Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey in 2019 caused a fierce backlash. National broadcaster CCTV stopped broadcasting NBA games and now, with Morey leading the Philadelphia 76ers, games involving the Sixers are not streamed in China.
The Morey episode showed the many knock-on effects of anyone speaking out against China. Because so much money flows in from the nation, leading players like LeBron James faced blowback for not publicly supporting Morey. ESPN parent Disney, which has invested billions in NBA rights, also depends on China as a key market for motion pictures and theme parks, making it reluctant to ever tip its hand.
Here are Kanter’s posts:
Dear Brutal Dictator XI JINPING and the Chinese Government
— Enes Kanter (@EnesKanter) October 20, 2021
More than 150 Tibetan people have burned themselves alive!! — hoping that such an act would raise more awareness about Tibet.
— Enes Kanter (@EnesKanter) October 20, 2021