Support for democracy and freedom of speech has been one of the core values in the United States for decades. Public figures, such as actors and athletes, have played an indispensable role in upholding these values by bringing public attention to issues of social injustice and spreading those values overseas in the form of soft power. As an example, Turkish NBA player Enes Kanter recently shared his own personal story of enduring authoritarian suppression of the Turkish people by its own government on Twitter.
Yet despite the fact that citizens often look up to public figures and celebrities as paragons championing the advancement of social justice domestically and internationally, we have recently witnessed a series of events in which celebrities engage in a different sort of behavior. These instances of self-censorship and denigrating pro-democratic values, when combined, could harm core democratic values that America cherishes.
The most prominent case that comes to mind is the recent incident surrounding LeBron James. Commenting on the recent tweet by Houston Rockets’ General Manager Daryl Morey in support of the democratic movement in Hong Kong, James mentioned that he thinks Morey “was either misinformed or not really educated on the situation.” There has been much discussion on why LeBron’s off-handed comments were problematic, but the most critical issue here is that LeBron was trying to use his status as a basketball luminary to criticize and attempt to silence the freedom of speech of another individual. LeBron’s actions here undermine our freedom of speech.
The tone and content of LeBron’s comments though are peculiar, in that they were made nearly after the initial firestorm between the NBA and China has cooled off. In the interim, the NBA leadership has spoken in support of Morey’s right to freedom of speech. The NBA’s defiance in the face of China’s demand for an apology ultimately forced Beijing to backtrack their demand, which is notable, given how the NBA must have known the possible costs of losing Chinese viewership due to a retaliatory broadcast ban. Moreover, punitive actions could have incurred disadvantages on the Chinese side in ongoing U.S.-Sino trade negotiations.