LeBron James sparked anger on social media on Tuesday after the Los Angeles Lakers star suggested that Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey “wasn’t educated” when he sent a tweet in support of protesters in Hong Kong earlier this month.
Morey’s tweet of support for pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong prompted Chinese sponsors and partners to cut ties with the league and forced the National Basketball Association (NBA) to answer difficult questions about free speech.
On Monday, James weighed in on the issue by telling reporters, “We all talk about this freedom of speech. Yes, we all do have freedom of speech. But at times there are ramifications for the negative that can happen when you’re not thinking about others.”
He added: “I don’t want to get into a word or sentence feud with Daryl,” he added. “But I believe he wasn’t educated on the situation at hand and he spoke.”
Many Twitter users responded to James’ statement with displeasure. “Weak,” said one user. Others simply posted emoji of bags of money.
Turkish player Enes Kanter of the Boston Celtics appeared to address James’ comments with a series of tweets.
A vocal critic of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan’s human rights record, Kanter was indicted by a Turkish court last year on charges of belonging to an armed terrorist group, which he denies.
“This is the price I am ready to pay if this is what it takes to stand up for what I believe is right,” Kanter tweeted, with a link to an opinion piece he wrote in the Boston Globe about his criticism of Turkey. “It’s worth it.”
“Haven’t seen or talked to my family 5 years,” he wrote in a separate tweet. “FREEDOM IS NOT FREE.”
In China, however, some internet commenters supported James, whose statements were trending on Weibo, China’s equivalent to Twitter, and Douyin, a popular short video platform owned by Bytedance Ltd.
“My James is being attacked by Americans, Americans believe Morey should be supported, and James’ words are basically opposing Morey,” said one user on Weibo. “Sigh, I love you James, hope you can continue to be healthy and play ball!”
James took to Twitter on Monday night to clarify his initial statements.
“Let me clear up the confusion,” he tweeted. “I do not believe there was any consideration for the consequences and ramifications of the tweet. I’m not discussing the substance. Others can talk About that.”
The Lakers played two exhibition games in China against the Brooklyn Nets last week, but the NBA canceled media availability for the teams during the trip. A Rockets staff member also shut down a CNN reporter in Tokyo last week while trying to ask players a question about the controversy. The league later apologized to the reporter in a statement. James is one of the few NBA representatives to speak openly about the uproar.
“My team and this league just went through a difficult week,” he tweeted on Monday. “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. Could have waited a week to send it.”
(Writing by Jahmal Corner in Los Angeles and Huizhong Wu in Beijing; Additional reporting by Amy Tennery in New York; Editing by Gerry Doyle and Matthew Lewis)