Courage is an increasingly rare trait in American professional sports. But Enes Kanter of the Boston Celtics is choosing to rise above the cowardice that seems to have infiltrated most of the NBA and is taking on the world’s most powerful authoritarian regime, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Kanter took to social media last week to raise awareness about one of the Chinese government’s lesser-known brutal crackdowns happening in the remote region of Tibet.
In a video on Twitter, Kanter said, “My message for the Chinese government is ‘free Tibet.’ Tibet belongs to Tibetans.” He spoke these words while wearing a T-shirt bearing the image of the Dalai Lama. That same image is illegal to display even in private homes in Tibet.
“Under the Chinese government’s brutal rule, Tibetan people’s basic rights and freedoms are non-existent,” Kanter continued. The reality is, he pointed out, that the Chinese government has put an entire region under lockdown. Tibetans can’t learn about Tibetan culture. Their movement is restricted. And they have no religious freedom.
Chinese troops first invaded Tibet in 1950, shortly after Mao Zedong came to power. During the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese government sought to destroy the culture and religious beliefs that made Tibet unique. For over 70 years, this has caused a great deal of suffering for Tibetans, especially those who want to retain their Tibetan Buddhist religious beliefs.
The battle against brutal dictators isn’t merely political for Kanter—it’s personal. Kanter was raised in Turkey but spoke out against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s thuggish regime, which is known for assaulting critics, repressing democracy, and wrongfully detaining innocent people.
Kanter’s outspokenness has cost him. Turkey revoked his passport. He cannot travel abroad for fear of arrest by Turkish authorities. He was even disinvited to participate in a kid’s basketball camp after a Turkish consulate threatened the New York mosque at which the camp was being held.
Erdogan is a notorious bully, much like China’s thin-skinned leaders. So, Kanter was likely prepared when the Chinese government blocked Celtics NBA games from airing in China in response to his comments about Tibet.
To bring his advocacy to the basketball court, Kanter asked Badiucao, a Chinese cartoonist, to design a pair of shoes that read “Free Tibet” and feature imagery representing the Tibetan plight. Badiucao told The Washington Post, “It surprised me, indeed, because of the potential risks that Enes is taking for this project. To act and support people not from your country, it’s a profound and rare character.” Kanter planned to wear the shoes in a game last week, but coaches did not put him in the game.
The NBA has a history of cowardice when it comes to China. When Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey posted a single tweet supporting Hong Kong pro-democracy protestors, Chinese broadcasters immediately threatened to cut ties. Under pressure, Morey retracted his statement, and the Houston Rockets and the NBA distanced themselves from Morey’s tweet.
But Kanter is no Morey. Instead of backing down, Kanter is expanding his human rights advocacy in China beyond Tibet. Last Friday, he posted another video to Twitter explaining the situation that Uyghur Muslims face in Xinjiang.
“There is a genocide happening right now,” Kanter said. “Torture, rape, forced abortions and sterilizations, family separations, arbitrary detentions, concentration camps, political reeducation, forced labor. This is all happening right now to more than 1.8 million Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region in northwestern China.” In the same video, Kanter also called out the leaders of Muslim-majority countries for being silent about the Chinese government’s genocide.
Kanter’s message to Chinese leadership is simple: “Close down the slave labor camps and free the Uyghur people. Stop the genocide now.”
The possible consequences for Kanter’s bold words remain to be seen. It’s not easy for professional athletes to go up against the Chinese government and the enormous Chinese market. It takes courage, something Kanter has in spades.
While it’s common for professional athletes to promote woke social campaigns, few pay attention to the many ongoing human rights crises around the world. Tibetans, Uyghurs, and other oppressed peoples are desperate for the world to know their plight and speak up on their behalf. Kanter is a hero for doing exactly that.