Let Freedom ring
Boston Celtics’ Enes Kanter Freedom is a vocal critic of China’s human rights abuses
In a league that has bent over backward to avoid offending China and hurting its brand’s image there, Enes Kanter Freedom is a fearless, outspoken, dissenting voice.
Born in Switzerland but raised in heavily Islamic Turkey, the 6-foot-10 center for the National Basketball Association’s Boston Celtics legally added “Freedom” to his name in late November to celebrate becoming a U.S. citizen. He did so to express how much he cherishes the many freedoms he enjoys in the United States that he did not have in Turkey, and even wears the name “Freedom” on his jersey.
Among the liberties Freedom prizes most is the freedom of speech. Ironically, he has declared that the United States’ critics should “keep their mouths shut”—a statement that has made him a hero to conservatives. Still, Freedom has exercised his liberty to regularly speak freely over the past few months to call attention to those suffering persecution—religious and otherwise—at the hands of China’s government.
A Muslim, Freedom has ripped China’s government for its treatment of Uyghur Muslims, a minority group whom China’s government is attempting to eradicate via genocide. Freedom even led a rally on the steps of the U.S. Capitol in late October urging Congress to pass the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which prohibits goods made in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region from being sold in the United States. President Joe Biden signed that bill into law on Dec. 23.
Freedom is one of the few athletes—from the United States or internationally—to call attention to the plight of 12.8 million Uyghur Muslims. Whereas no U.S. athletes have threatened to boycott the upcoming Winter Olympics in Beijing over China’s treatment of Uyghurs, Freedom has called for the International Olympic Committee to move the Games out of China. Freedom has even competed in white shoes that bear the words “No Beijing 2022” and feature red paint resembling dripping blood surrounding the shoelaces.
Freedom called out the IOC for keeping the Games in China in the wake of Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai’s disappearance. Peng had accused a Chinese Communist Party official of sexually assaulting her, and China’s Communist regime has a habit of making its critics vanish.
“All the gold medals in the world aren’t worth selling your values,” Freedom wrote in an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal.
(Peng eventually had a video conference with IOC president Thomas Bach assuring him that she was fine. However, many speculate that the Chinese government forced her to do this to keep the Olympics in China.)
Freedom has also spoken out against China’s aggression toward Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Tibet.
All of this is notable given that the NBA, its biggest sponsors, and its most bankable stars, past and present, have taken great care to avoid offending China and lose out on the potential billions of dollars to be made there. The NBA has surprisingly not tried to silence Freedom, given its efforts to establish its brand there.
This has emboldened Freedom to direct his anger toward LeBron James, the NBA’s biggest star, and Nike, one of the league’s chief sponsors: Both the Los Angeles Lakers guard/forward and the Beaverton, Ore.–based athletic shoe and apparel company have used their platforms to speak out for groups in America that they deem oppressed, blacks in particular. When it comes to China, however, Freedom accuses James and Nike of putting their financial interests ahead of those who suffer at the Communist regime’s hands.
Freedom wore shoes showing James being crowned by China’s chairman, Xi Jinping, while standing next to bags of money when the Celtics played the Lakers earlier this season. Freedom has also said he would be open to a sit-down with James, declaring, “I’m here to educate him.” James has responded that Freedom is “someone I wouldn’t give my energy.”
Regardless, Freedom has a point: In 2019, James publicly blasted then–Houston Rockets manager Daryl Morey—now with the Philadelphia 76ers—for tweeting his support of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. Morey’s tweet preceded a Lakers’ preseason trip to China and prompted the country to take the Lakers’ exhibition games against the Brooklyn Nets off state-sponsored TV. Nike, meanwhile, manufactures many of its products at sweatshops in China and pays its workers dismal wages.
Freedom’s stance has not come without backlash or consequences: China has pulled Celtics broadcasts from Tencent, the Internet streaming service that shows NBA games in the country—something it has also done with the 76ers, Morey’s current employer. Freedom has also garnered criticism from such left-wing media outlets as The Atlantic and The Nation for slamming those who criticize America: In so doing, these outlets assert, he displays the very authoritarian tendencies he claims to oppose.
Still, though the Chinese people may not be able to watch him on their country’s streaming platform, that is unlikely to deter Freedom from continuing to use his own platform on their behalf.
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