Has LeBron’s image been irreparably damaged by his China response? Experts say no

Jeff Eisenberg

When LeBron James chose to put protecting his business interests in China ahead of promoting democracy and free speech, it came at a price.

He alienated a portion of his fans back home who have long admired his willingness to take a public stand against social injustice.

Sports business and crisis communications experts told Yahoo Sports that LeBron should have struck a more diplomatic, even-handed tone Monday night when he criticized Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey for his tweet that angered the Chinese government. They don’t expect LeBron to lose sponsorships or endorsements as a result of his comments, but they do believe he has damaged his reputation with some American consumers.

“It's not a good look for LeBron,” said Bob Dorfman, executive director of San Francisco-based Baker Street Advertising. “While I can't see it irreparably harming his image, it will definitely take a hit. Any future comments he makes on pretty much any issue will likely be met with the suspicion that he's only looking out for his best interests — and the money always comes first. It's a shame, as LeBron has always been one of the good guys in pro sports, as humanitarian-driven as he is profit-driven.”

Demonstrators hold up photos of LeBron James grimacing during a rally at the Southorn Playground in Hong Kong, Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019. Protesters in Hong Kong have thrown basketballs at a photo of LeBron James and chanted their anger about comments the Los Angeles Lakers star made about free speech during a rally in support of NBA commissioner Adam Silver and Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, whose tweet in support of the Hong Kong protests touched off a firestorm of controversy in China. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)
Demonstrators hold up photos of LeBron James grimacing during a rally at the Southorn Playground in Hong Kong, Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019. Protesters in Hong Kong have thrown basketballs at a photo of James and chanted their anger about comments he made about free speech. (AP)

The standoff between China and the NBA began 11 days ago when Morey tweeted a message of support to Hong Kong protesters fighting to preserve some semblance of independence and to avoid total Chinese control. China angrily responded with a display of economic clout, yanking sponsorships, removing Rockets games from its airwaves and practically threatening to shut down the NBA’s business in its most profitable international market if more criticism followed.

LeBron had not been available to the media while the Los Angeles Lakers toured China last week, so he made his first public comments during a pregame session before an exhibition game at Staples Center on Monday night. He described Morey as “misinformed,” lambasting him for sending his tweet while NBA teams were in China and for not considering the economic ramifications of angering the world’s most populous basketball market.

“I don’t want to get into a word or sentence feud with Daryl Morey, but I believe he wasn’t educated on the situation at hand [when] he spoke,” James said. “So many people could have been harmed, not only financially but physically, emotionally, spiritually.

“So be careful what we tweet and say and do. Yes, we do have freedom of speech, but there can be a lot of negative that comes with that too.”

The backlash to those comments arrived so swiftly on social media that LeBron apparently felt compelled to clarify them.

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Crisis communications specialists who spoke to Yahoo Sports were surprised that LeBron didn’t have a more polished, calculated response ready given the amount of time he had to prepare. They would have advised LeBron to say less and to be more sympathetic to Morey.

“He seemed to really only be focused on how the [Morey] tweet impacted the NBA and its players and not necessarily focused on the more global issues related to human rights violations by China,” said Terry Fahn, a strategic communications and crisis management specialist for Sitrick and Company. “That’s where he erred.

“He could have said, ‘I understand why Darryl Morey would want to speak about the protest but I also think he didn’t consider the impact it would have on the league and its players. This is a complicated issue and that’s all I’m going to say about it at this time.’ It’s not going to make anyone happy but he’d have threaded the needle by acknowledging both sides.”

Operating in China is often delicate for foreign corporations eager to establish a foothold in a lucrative international market yet wary of facing criticism for looking the other way on repression and human rights violations. Marriott and Mercedes-Benz are among the major corporations that have kowtowed to China after employee criticism of Chinese policy led to threats from the government.

The NBA and its players are especially vulnerable to such tactics because of how much they have invested in growing the Chinese market.

The NBA has staged at least one exhibition game in China every year since 2004 and rakes in hundreds of millions of dollars per year in digital and TV rights deals. Players are invested in China, too, as LeBron, Kobe Bryant, Steph Curry and Klay Thompson are among the stars who make annual offseason trips to meet fans and hawk merchandise.

Whereas Curry, Steve Kerr and other NBA luminaries have deftly sidestepped questions about Morey’s tweet and China’s history of human rights violations, LeBron allowed himself to be swept into the controversy. A player who in the past has been so outspoken in his dislike of President Trump or in protesting police brutality this time gave the impression to some that he was putting money above morality.

“The best comment he could have made would have been no comment,” said Jiaflix co-founder Marc Ganis, a sports business consultant who has engineered a number of significant deals in China. “This is one of those situations where anything that is said will generate detractors and has the potential to cause problems. That’s where this situation is right now and that’s why letting time go by is probably the best approach right now. The issue is so hot that no matter what you say, someone from a perspective will find reason to be outraged by it.”

In the wake of his comments, LeBron has been a target for criticism all over the globe. Hong Kong protesters burned and trampled his jersey. Fellow athletes and grandstanding politicians blasted him on social media. Only his corporate sponsors have stayed silent, something that experts expect to continue barring the unlikely event that widespread organized protests occur.

“Short of that happening, I don’t think he’s in jeopardy of losing sponsors,” Fahn said. “He may find himself booed more vociferously in certain arenas and subject to isolated publicity attempts by people who are pro-democracy in Hong Kong, but if it’s not well organized and doesn’t gain traction, I don’t think his sponsors will take any action.”

What can LeBron do now to repair the damage done to his reputation and ensure that doesn’t happen?

“Maybe just keep quiet until this blows over,” says Dorfman.

Ganis and Fahn had similar opinions.

“This is an issue that the smartest, most erudite people in our society have trouble threading the needle on,” Ganis said. “Sometimes the best approach is to do what you do better than anyone else in the planet, entertain the fans, focus on those issues that you’re passionate about and maybe stay on the sidelines on this topic. Say, ‘I don’t know enough to comment.’ ”

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