Skip to main content

NBA Player Steps Up His Criticism of Nike, LeBron James Over Xinjiang

Enes Kanter Freedom—the Boston Celtics center known until Monday simply as Enes Kanter—is not easing up on his criticism of China, Nike and basketball star LeBron James.

A long-time critic of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Freedom turned his attention to China last month, first for its policies on Tibet, and then for its treatment of Uyghurs, a Turkic ethnic minority that lives predominantly in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region (XUAR).

A little more than a month ago, that criticism grew to include Nike, which he said makes its shoes using “slave labor.” In March last year, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) released a report that claimed 83 companies benefited from the use of Uyghur labor. One case study specifically linked Nike to a factory that allegedly employed 600 ethnic minority workers from Xinjiang. According to a Washington Post article that was published in February 2020 and quoted both Uyghurs and locals, these workers did not choose to come to the factory and were not allowed to practice their religion.

In July 2020, Nike told Radio Free Asia that this factory had since ceased hiring workers from Xinjiang and that all workers from the region had been sent home. According to Nike’s official statement on Xinjiang, Taekwang Group, the factory’s South Korean parent company, stopped hiring new “employees” from Xinjiang to that specific facility in 2019, “when reports of the situation in XUAR began to surface.” Citing an independent third-party audit, Nike said it has confirmed that there are no longer any workers from Xinjiang at the facility. The company also claimed that “ongoing diligence has not found evidence of employment of Uyghurs, or other ethnic minorities from the XUAR, elsewhere in our supply chain in China.”

Related Stories

Freedom, however, does not seem convinced by these claims and has since made multiple appearances on cable news programs where he has urged the NBA and Nike, its largest sponsor, to take a stronger stand against China. On social media, he has invited Nike co-founder and owner Phil Knight and basketball icons LeBron James and Michael Jordan to travel with him to China so they could all inspect the company’s supply chain together.

“Nike remains vocal about injustice here in America, but when it comes to China, Nike remains silent,” the NBA player said in a video posted to his social media last month. “You do not address police brutality in China, you do not speak about discrimination against the LGBTQ community, you do not say a word about the oppression of minorities in China. You are scared to speak up.”

The NBA itself has a close relationship with China as it is seen as having huge growth potential for its product.

Freedom upped his criticism of James earlier this month ahead of an NBA game between the Celtics and James’ Lakers.

“Money over Morals for the ‘King,’” Freedom wrote on Twitter. “Sad & disgusting how these athletes pretend they care about social justice… They really do ‘shut up & dribble’ when Big Boss says so. Did you educate yourself about the slave labor that made your shoes or is that not part of your research?”

The post included pictures of a pair of shoes he would wear the next day during his matchup with James. The sneakers depict the basketball great bowing before a caricaturized depiction of Xi Jinping as the Chinese leader places a crown on his head. James responded to Freedom in a post-game press conference.

“I think if you know me, you know I don’t give too many people my energy,” James said. “He’s definitely not someone I would give my energy to. He’s trying to use my name to create an opportunity for himself. I definitely won’t comment too much on that.

“He’s always had a word or two to say in my direction, and as a man, if you’ve got an issue with somebody, you really come up to him. He had his opportunity tonight. I seen him in the hallway, and he walked right by me.”

Despite James’ dismissiveness, it appears Freedom’s activism is generating attention. According to Google Trends data, interest in the player spiked when he began speaking out against China last month. This past week, interest climbed to its second-highest point in the past five years—the week Freedom signed with the Boston Celtics still holds the top spot.