Boston Celtics games were yanked from the Chinese internet Thursday after the team’s center, Enes Kanter, criticized the country’s oppression of Tibet, calling Chinese President Xi Jinping a “brutal dictator.”
Kanter wore sneakers with the message “Free Tibet” painted on them to the Celtics’ 138-134 double-overtime loss to the New York Knicks on Wednesday night, although Kanter did not play in the game.
The episode is likely to re-inflame controversy surrounding the NBA in China, which has been the league’s second-largest market for years.
After decades of surging popularity in China, the NBA was plunged into crisis in 2019 when the Houston Rockets general manager at the time, Daryl Morey, posted a seven-word tweet espousing support for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement (“Fight for freedom, stand for Hong Kong,” it read). The tweet was quickly deleted, but Chinese television networks dropped all broadcast of NBA games for over a year and local sponsors severed millions of dollars worth of contracts with NBA teams and players.
In the months since, the NBA had gradually begun to mend its reputation in the country, with games returning to online broadcast. Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, meanwhile, has been brutally suppressed, with over 100 activists and opposition politicians thrown in jail under a new National Security law that makes publicly criticizing mainland Chinese rule a crime.
In a three-minute video post to his social media accounts Wednesday, Kanter decried China’s “cultural genocide” in Tibet while wearing a T-shirt featuring the face of the Dalai Lama. “Under the Chinese government’s brutal rule, the Tibetan people’s basic rights and freedoms are nonexistent,” he said. “They are not allowed to learn and study their own language and culture freely.”
“I say, ‘Shame on the Chinese government,’” he added. “The Chinese dictatorship is erasing Tibetan identity and culture.”
In a follow-up post, Kanter displayed his “Free Tibet” sneakers.
Shortly after news of Kanter’s remarks reached China, Celtics games became unavailable for replay on the video services of Chinese internet giant Tencent, which has a $1.5 billion deal with the NBA to stream games in the country. The website for Tencent Sports also posted that upcoming Celtics games would not be broadcast.
The most popular Celtics fan account on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, notified its more than half a million followers that it would cease posting about the team, writing, “Resolutely resist any behavior that damages national harmony and the dignity of the motherland!”
If the reactionary response to Kanter’s statements gathers steam in China, and the entire NBA becomes the target again for greater retribution, the incident is likely to reignite the ideological friction that followed the 2019 Morey incident. NBA commissioner Adam Silver declined to directly apologize for Morey’s remarks at the time, but there was widespread criticism in the U.S. over the response from the league and many of its players, who appeared to be willing to downplay democratic values in order to maintain their enormous business interests in China.
Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James, arguably the league’s most popular player, came under intense scrutiny for criticizing Morey for the tweet — a decision that many onlookers and activists took as hypocritical given the star’s reputation for being a strong social justice advocate on U.S. issues (“I believe he wasn’t educated on the situation at hand,” James said of Morey’s support of Hong Kong protestors.)
Kanter, who is of Turkish descent, is known for his support of international human rights campaigns. He is a prominent critic of Turkey’s repressive president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan — a stance that has resulted in Kanter’s Turkish passport being revoked and Turkish prosecutors issuing multiple warrants for his arrest.
Kanter also appeared to express disappointment in James back in 2019, responding to the Lakers star’s remarks about Morey with a tweet saying, “Wow dude!,” followed by a facepalm emoji. He later tweeted a list of the personal consequences he has faced for speaking out against the Erdogan regime in Turkey, stating, “Jailed my dad; My siblings can’t find jobs; Revoked my passport; International arrest warrant; My family can’t leave the country; Got Death Threats everyday.”
In a 2019 op-ed published in the Boston Globe, Kanter wrote, “I have a prominent platform and I want to use it to promote respect for human rights, democracy, and personal freedom. For me, this is bigger [than] basketball.”