Enes Kanter Freedom: The NBA Authoritarian Against Authoritarianism

We are living in a time of political backlash against anybody who dared to speak out and encourage people to take to the streets following the police murder of George Floyd in the summer of 2020: a murder that sparked one of the largest series of demonstrations in the history of the United States and a reckoning with this nation’s history of racial oppression. One the symbols of that time of protest was the active participation of players from the NBA and the WNBA. No single individual symbolizes the world of politics and hoops quite like LeBron James.

LeBron has been that rarest of superstars: the kind who speaks out. His record of advocacy against racism and police violence has been impressive, especially when one considers, given his public profile, all he has to lose. That is why it’s not surprising to see the backlash coming—yet again—for LeBron. The difference this time is that it arrives wearing an NBA uniform.

A Boston Celtics bench player from Turkey known as Enes Kanter, who for years has spoken out against authoritarian leaders in China and Turkey, has changed his name to Enes Kanter Freedom and become a US citizen. His first act was to go on Tucker Carlson’s white supremacist power hour on Fox News and blast LeBron and fellow NBA players, to Carlson’s evident delight. (Tucker looked like a rosy-cheeked, spoiled child under the Christmas tree. For him, having Enes attack powerful outspoken Black people must feel like getting the gift topping his list for Santa.) Enes said, “I feel like they should just keep their mouth shut and stop criticizing the greatest nation in the world and they should focus on their freedoms and their human rights and democracy.” Carlson also labeled Enes in the chyron as “NBA star,” which is about as truthful as the other authoritarian lies he spews, so at least it’s consistent.

Enes later publicly specified that on the issue of China, he would want to talk to LeBron, saying, “I don’t know if he’s educated enough, but I’m here to educate him.” (In addition to the undercurrent of racism in that statement, this is a mighty chesty statement given the fact that when Enes had the chance to speak to LeBron one-on-one without the cameras on, according to James, he just walked on by.)

Enes claims that his posture is about confronting Nike about its sweatshops in China as well as the genocide against the Uyghur people. This strains credulity to the breaking point. If Enes cared about fighting authoritarianism, he wouldn’t cozy up to authoritarians supportive of his causes, as has been his pattern. He wouldn’t gleefully appear on a show that spent a week in Hungary genuflecting before alt-right hero-authoritarian and bigot Viktor Orbán. He wouldn’t pose for photos with people like John Bolton and Jared Kushner who want nothing less than a stepped-up new cold war with China and the continuance of “hot wars” in the Middle East. He wouldn’t uncritically cheer for the Israeli state while Gaza remains an open-air prison (Note the photo in this picture. Enes is wearing a sweatshirt with the name of Israel’s notoriously racist and violent soccer fan organization, La Familia, that supports the team Beitar Jerusalem).

If he cared about Nike’s exploitation, he would stop wearing its gear, or at least do what brave athletes have done at the collegiate level and cover up the swoosh. He would also be relentlessly talking about Phil Knight instead of LeBron, and trying to sway LeBron to join his struggle, not pushing him away by calling him stupid. He’d try to start a petition of NBA players for workers rights, not alienate every last one of them.

Enes seems to be angling less for human rights than for a soft landing on the right, his own show, and perhaps a Hungarian sneaker deal. His career is not long for this world—he plays 12 minutes a night—and you just know he’s waiting to be released so he can say that it happened because of his criticism of China and not because of his inability to play defense.

What is confusing is that until a few weeks ago, for those who didn’t look too closely, Enes was saying many things one would agree with, whether on the question of human rights in China or against the leader with whom he has long been at odds, Turkey’s Erdogan. But his slide into the arms of the right wing only highlights the absence of a true anti-imperialist left in the United States: a left that attempts to find solidarity with the movement for Black lives and links their struggle against oppression with people struggling for human rights around the world, including in China.

International solidarity for the Uyghur people against anti-Islamic violence does not entail embracing anti-Muslim bigots like Tucker or Western authoritarians like Bolton who dream of a new great crusade against Islam and more war in the Middle East. These are cheap opportunists, not principled actors, and Enes has joined their ranks with a big smile. As a last point, you might have noticed that I keep calling the subject of this article Enes and not his new name, “Freedom.” I just can’t do it. It’s too grotesque, given the people on earth, from Gaza to Ferguson, whom Enes thinks nothing of keeping in chains.

Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to dave@edgeofsports.com.
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