LeBron James and the NBA have a China problem.
It’s not the one you already know about, where they shamefully capitulated to the slightest wind of discontentment from Beijing when Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey stood up for protesters in Hong Kong last year. (To be fair, Morey didn’t fare too well, either, quickly issuing an apology that felt like nothing so much as a textual version of those grainy hostage videos.)
Instead, according to Missouri GOP Sen. Josh Hawley, the problem is that the NBA is using Chinese “slave labor” to make some league-branded merchandise.
According to Fox News, Hawley introduced a bill earlier this week that would require businesses to be more transparent about whether they are using forced-labor camps to manufacture their wares.
The Slave-Free Business Certification Act would “increase corporate supply chain disclosure requirements, mandates regular audits, requires chief executive officers to certify that their companies’ supply chains do not rely on forced, slave labor, and creates penalties for firms that fail basic minimum standards for human rights.”
In an appearance on Fox News on Tuesday, Hawley pressed the league and Nike, its official apparel supplier, to certify they don’t use the slave labor camps, which the United States says uses Uighurs and individuals from other minority groups.
“I want to challenge these major American corporations like Nike, like the NBA, who rely on forced slave labor overseas to make their products — you know, the NBA is a classic example,” Hawley said.
“All of the uniforms that the players wear … the product lines endorsed by NBA stars are made with forced labor in China and elsewhere. Uighur concentration camps, for instance, help make those Nike uniforms the NBA wears.”
The Uighurs are a Muslim ethnic minority in northwestern China. According to the BBC, roughly 1 million Uighurs have been put into internment camps by the Chinese government in the province of Xinjiang; thousands have been transferred to factories in an arrangement the Australian Strategic Policy Institute says “strongly suggest[s] forced labor.”
“Corporate America and the celebrities that hawk their products have been playing this game for a long time – talk up corporate social responsibility and social justice at home while making millions of dollars off the slave labor that assembles their products,” Hawley said in a statement.
“Executives build woke, progressive brands for American consumers but happily outsource labor to Chinese concentration camps, all just to save a few bucks.”
While another “woke” brand — Apple — has been caught up in the Uighur forced labor scandal, Nike and the NBA have an adversarial relationship with Hawley, something apparent during Hawley’s appearance on Fox News on Tuesday.
“I would challenge the NBA, Adam Silver, all the endorsers of Nike products like LeBron to take a pledge that they will be slave free, that they will not use in their product lines slave labor,” Hawley said.
The move comes after Hawley’s previous tussle with the NBA over the league’s decision to allow players to put a league-approved social justice message on the back of their uniforms at the start of the season.
All of these messages had some vague connection to the nationwide protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death in police custody on May 25 — the league plans to paint “Black Lives Matter” on the courts when regular-season play resumes — which led Hawley to inquire in a letter to the NBA whether players would be able to add messages in support of law enforcement or “victims of the Chinese Communist Party,” according to The Washington Post.
“If a player chooses to display a message of support for victims of the Chinese Communist Party on their jersey,” Hawley asked, “will the NBA allow the player to wear their jersey or will it censor that player in order to avoid drawing Beijing’s ire?”
ESPN basketball analyst Adrian Wojnarowski was subsequently suspended by the network for replying to Hawley’s news release via email with a vulgar two-word interjection that wasn’t “Good job.”
LeBron James, Nike’s biggest active NBA endorser, was supportive of Wojnarowski:
— LeBron James (@KingJames) July 12, 2020
Apparently, in James’ world, telling a sitting U.S. senator “F— you” merits support, but Morey exercising his freedom of speech to support the people of Hong Kong deserves opprobrium. And don’t even ask him about whether those uniforms or shoes he endorses were made using slave labor. I’m trying to figure out how this works in a consistent value system other than Gordon Gekko’s, and I’m drawing a blank.
Nike, for its part, says it is “conducting ongoing diligence with our suppliers in China to identify and assess potential risks related to employment of Uighur or other ethnic minorities,” and that it doesn’t source materials directly from Xinjiang.
Nevertheless, it’s interesting to see a very woke league and a very woke company that have taken very woke stands on social justice and America’s racial sins — assumedly going back to the original sin, slavery. The NBA’s leaders are taking it upon themselves to call out systematic oppression.
And yet, they can’t find it within themselves to actively prevent injustice or call out actual oppression. If what Sen. Hawley is saying is accurate, they don’t care about modern slavery, either. And they also don’t particularly want anyone speaking out about it, as witnessed by how quickly Morey was shut up. Meanwhile, LeBron James is willing to say more about the rights of a rich reporter who got suspended for cursing at a senator than actual human rights in the world’s most organized debaser.
I’m not saying America doesn’t have problems. Just don’t count on Nike, the NBA or LeBron James to solve any of them.
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