Risk everything, even if it means sacrificing money from China

“A threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

These two quotes, both from the late Martin Luther King, Jr., were widely posted — among others — on social media to mark the 50th anniversary of his assassination.

The sentiment contained in both quotes is, of course, quite inspiring. It extols the virtue of standing up to fight for justice, wherever injustice is encountered, no matter the personal consequences to you.

Unfortunately, in 2019 most of the people who post quotes like these on social media are not interested in actually living by those quotes. Instead, they wish to be seen signaling their own virtue, and by associating themselves with great and inspiring figures like Dr. King, hoping they too will be viewed as profound.

One such person was NBA star LeBron James.

Demonstrators stamp on LeBron James jerseys during a rally at the Southorn Playground in Hong Kong on Tuesday. Protesters in Hong Kong have thrown basketballs at a photo of James and chanted their anger about comments the Los Angeles Lakers star made about free speech during a rally in support of NBA commissioner Adam Silver and Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, whose tweet in support of the Hong Kong protests touched off a firestorm of controversy in China. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

On Jan. 15, 2018, James tweeted the two quotes by King. The tweet came as the nation continued to react to the social justice protests — begun by quarterback Colin Kaepernick — across multiple sports, including basketball.

Many members in the NBA, including James, expressed support for Kaepernick’s protest. In fact, James was among the louder boosters of the protest. He was integral to the Nike, “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything” campaign, dutifully doing his share of the marketing. He also said in February of 2019, “I stand with Kap. I kneel with Kap. I feel like what he was talking about nobody wanted to listen to.”

This was all central to the image that James was presenting to the world at large, as he attempted to cloak himself in the aura of social consciousness.

In July of 2018, James sat down with Rachel Nichols of ESPN to talk about his recent brand shift toward outspoken wokeness. “When you see something that’s unjust, or you see something that’s wrong, or you see something that’s trying to divide us,” said James, “I feel like my voice can be heard and can speak volumes.”

But don’t be fooled. This is all marketing. James sees an opportunity in expressing himself. When the possibility for activism has the potential to do financial harm to James — like speaking up for the people of Hong Kong against Chinese despotism — he folds like a cheap suit.

“I don’t want to get into a feud with Daryl Morey,” James said earlier this week, “but I believe he wasn’t educated on the situation at hand and he spoke. […] Even though yes, we do have freedom of speech, there can be a lot of negative that comes from that.”

The “uninformed” Morey, just for the record, went to both Northwestern and MIT.

Remember, in the context of this, James’ enthusiasm for Nike’s campaign to “stand for something, even if it means sacrificing everything.” Unless, of course, you are basketball general manager rather tepidly tweeting a statement simply saying, “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong,” as Morey, general manager of the Houston Rockets did.

James’ hypocrisy can be explained simply. Messing with China means messing with his money.

“My team and this league just went through a difficult week,” James tweeted. “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.”

Translation: this guy just hurt my bottom line. When real consequences are on the table, all that talk of “risking everything” and “fighting injustice anywhere” goes right out the window.

Ultimately, the real motivation of James and others in associating themselves with great men and great struggles for freedom is not to join a real movement, but it is rather to be seen by others as joining those movements in the hopes that the regard for them will increase.

In other words, James wanted people to think of him as a fighter for social justice, without having to actually risk anything.

You see, domestic activism is not risky. In fact, it is perhaps beneficial to your brand as an athlete, and increases your own marketability. The embrace of the Nike social justice ads are enough proof of this for a lifetime.

But when real financial repercussions are on the table? Silence, or in this case, actively working to silence others standing up against tyranny and oppression because it made him and the league have a “bad week.”

If only James would have read more quotes from King, like the following: “There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.”

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.