February 11, 2022

Enes Kanter Freedom

NBA player Enes Kanter Freedom, a prominent critic of his native Turkey and China, discusses the genocide of the Uyghurs, his call for a boycott of the Beijing Olympic Games, and his criticisms of the NBA and Nike for business ties with China.

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MH: Bigger than basketball…This Week on Firing Line.

EKF: Just because I’m a basketball player, when I tweet something, when I say something, it becomes a conversation and it goes viral. 

He was a top pick in the 2011 NBA draft, a Turkish Muslim on the game’s biggest stage at just 19. Then called Enes Kanter, his criticism of Turkey’s authoritarianism landed his father in jail and cost him his passport. Now, the NBA center has become an American citizen, taking on a new last name: Freedom. 

Reporter: How do you want us to say it?

EKF: Mr. Freedom. 

His human rights advocacy has expanded to China, and its ongoing genocide against Muslim Uyghurs. 

EKF: My message to you is free the Uyghurs.

He’s calling out the Beijing Olympics and anyone who profits off of China, from LeBron James to Nike. But is the NBA trying to silence him for his advocacy? What does Enes Kanter Freedom say now? 

Plus, late developments about his trade this week and what that could mean for his future

‘Firing Line’ with Margaret Hoover is made possible in part by: Robert Granieri, Charles R. Schwab, The Fairweather Foundation, The Asness Family Foundation and by, Craig Newmark Philanthropies, The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation and Damon Button. Corporate Funding is provided by Stevens Inc. and Pfizer inc.

INTERVIEW

HOOVER: Enes Kanter Freedom. Welcome to Firing Line.

KANTER FREEDOM: Thanks for having me. I appreciate that. 

HOOVER: You are the six-foot, ten-inch basketball center who’s played for five NBA teams. But your personal story and now your human rights advocacy has helped elevate your profile. You are Muslim from Turkey. And you began speaking out against Turkish President Erdoğan​​ almost a decade ago. Why were you speaking out then? 

KANTER FREEDOM: You know, my first two years in the league, I did not care about what’s going on. All I cared about was just, you know, hanging out with my teammates, have a good time and just play basketball, try to win games because that is my job, you know. And I remember it was the first time there was a big corruption scandal happening in Turkey. President Erdoğan​​ and his family was involved in it. President Erdoğan​​ started to put journalists and put prosecutors and police in jail who caught him. And then after that, he started to go around and shut down media outlets. And it was the first time I actually tweeted something. And because of the NBA platform, it became a conversation here in the United States and especially in Turkey. And I was like, if one tweet can affect this much, from now on I am going to start to pay attention to what’s going on in my country. 

HOOVER: The Turkish authorities, as you well know, they have accused you of having ties to terrorism. There were warrants out for your arrest. You have even missed international competitions due to risks of traveling outside the United States. What have been the consequences for you personally to speaking out against Turkey’s president? 

KANTER FREEDOM: I think, you know, everyone in the world who is, you know, against the Turkish president automatically becomes a terrorist, becomes an enemy of the state. I remember, you know, it was back in 2015 that was the last time I visited my family. That was the last time I saw my family. And because of the platform, you know, the really big media outlets, really big newspapers wanted me to, you know, go on live and talk about the situation, or wanted to interview me, or wanted me to write op-ed for them. And I was doing it. And the Turkish government hated that. And, you know, especially my family were really affected. My dad was a Genetics professor. He got fired from his job. My sister went to medical school for six years. She actually still cannot find a job. They sent police to my house in Turkey and they raided the whole house and they took every electronics away – phones, computers, laptops, ipads – because they wanted to see if I have stayed in contact with my family or not. They couldn’t find anything, but they still took my dad to jail for a while. They revoked my passport, put my name on the Interpol list. I have now ten arrest warrants for me in less than four years. But I think that’s what happens, I feel like, when you talk about authoritarian or dictatorship regimes out there. 

HOOVER: Your passport was revoked, but just last year you became an American citizen. In celebration of that moment, you actually changed your last name to Freedom. And that word was important for you, I understand, to have on the back of your jersey. Why? 

KANTER FREEDOM: I remember the first time coming to America. It was back in 2009. I was playing in high school. And one of my teammates criticized the president. He did it on Facebook, actually. And I was, like, very scared for him. I’m like ‘Dude, what are you doing? You are criticizing the president. You know, you might be thrown in jail the next day.’ And he started to laugh, actually. He was like, ‘Listen, man, this is not Turkey. This is America.’ And he tried to explain to me what freedom of speech, freedom of religion, expression, freedom of press means. So after that, obviously, that word meant so much to me. 

HOOVER: You became aware of human rights abuses against fellow Muslims in China last year. You tell a story about a parent of a child at a basketball camp who asked you why you weren’t standing up for the Uyghurs, the Muslim minority in Xinjiang province in China. 

KANTER FREEDOM: I remember, you know, I was taking pictures with the kids. And one of the parents asked me in front of everybody, ‘How can you call yourself a human rights activist when your Muslim brothers and sisters are getting tortured and raped every day in concentration camps in China?’ And I turned around. I was shocked. And I promised him, I was like, ‘I promise I’m going to get back to you.’ So I canceled everything that day and went back to my hotel and started to do research about what’s going on. And the things that I read and watched shattered my heart. And the more I researched, the more I was ashamed of myself. I was, like, I cannot believe I have not said anything about this. And I was, like, they’re Muslim, I’m Muslim. I was, like, I have to stand up for those innocent people. 

HOOVER: The US State Department has called what is happening to the Muslim Uyghurs in China a genocide. Conservative estimates have at least a million Uyghurs subjected to imprisonment, forced sterilization, torture, forced labor. You’ve been really outspoken about the Olympics. As you know also at the opening ceremony of the Olympics, there was a 20 year old Chinese cross-country skier, a Uyghur woman, who was one of two Chinese athletes in the final torch lighting. And the International Olympic Committee said that her ethnicity had absolutely nothing to do with her selection. What’s your take?

KANTER FREEDOM: I will say it’s all  propaganda. You know, I feel like China is trying to show the whole world that there is not a genocide happening; what’s happening to the Uyghurs it’s just reeducation camps and stuff. But I will say it was all propaganda. 

HOOVER: You’ve said that the United States diplomatic boycott of the games isn’t enough, and that you were expecting that athletes would also boycott the games. Do you really think athletes should give up their chance to compete, you know, a chance that only comes once every four years?

KANTER FREEDOM: I get their perspective, right. They are working so hard. And obviously the Olympics is– maybe it will come once in a lifetime. But the Chinese Communist Party does not represent all of the core values of excellence, of friendship, of respect. And I believe that the whole world understands they’re a brutal dictatorship and they engage in censorship. They threaten freedoms, they don’t respect human rights, they hide the truth. And to all all the athletes out there, I’m just thinking, if their mother, if their father, if their sister, or if their daughter was in concentration camps and getting tortured and raped, would they still go? That was the one question that I will ask of them. And I believe all the gold medals in the world that they can win is not more important than their morals, their values, and their principles. 

HOOVER: Is it tough for you as an NBA player and an athlete to make the case that those athletes should pass up the chance to compete, on principle, even though you still get to compete by being in the NBA?

KANTER FREEDOM: Obviously, I’m playing in the NBA. But at the same time I’m calling out the NBA. I’m calling out Nike. I’m calling out players. I am trying to hold them accountable. But if they’re going to go there and just compete, and not try to hold anyone accountable, that means they’re just part of the propaganda. 

HOOVER: The Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai, attracted international attention when she disappeared from public view for a period of time. She accused an official in the Chinese Communist Party of sexual assault. This week, Peng did what the AP described as a quote “controlled interview” with a French newspaper. And a Chinese Olympic Committee official sat in the room during the interview. Peng walked back the original allegation and called the concern over her safety quote “enormous misunderstanding.” Do you think that Peng Shuai is acting at her own volition?

KANTER FREEDOM: About Peng Shuai, you know– now, while we know that she’s alive, we don’t know that she is free. You know, China is trying to do everything they can to control the narrative about her. So I don’t believe she is free. We know she’s alive, thank God, but I don’t believe that she’s free. 

HOOVER: In 1966, on the original Firing Line, William F. Buckley Jr., the original host of this program, spoke to Sir Arnold Lunn, who was the skier that invented slalom ski racing. Now, Lunn opposed the Olympics being held in Nazi Germany in 1936. Listen to what he said three decades after those 1936 games. 

LUNN: We, your country and mine, in theory at least, we detest persecution. I would keep out of the Olympic Games the representatives of any country in which men are persecuted for religion, for politics, or for race. 

HOOVER: So here’s the question. You know, despite all of the calls for a boycott in the 1936 Olympics, 49 nations, including the United States, sent teams to Berlin that year. And the quote-unquote “Nazi games” became a propaganda tool that in some ways helped legitimize Hitler’s regime. Are we going to look back the same way at the 90 countries who sent teams this year to China?

KANTER FREEDOM: Down the line in history, you know, I think we’re going to look back and we will be ashamed that all the countries who sent their players or athletes in a country where there’s a genocide happening. 

HOOVER: You’ve voiced your support through custom sneakers for a free and independent Taiwan, Hong Kong and Tibet. And your pro Tibet stance caused Celtics games to be pulled from China altogether, where the NBA is hugely popular. NBA revenue from Chinese business is reportedly worth $5 billion annually. What else could the NBA be doing to make a real difference? 

KANTER FREEDOM: I feel like the NBA should stop working with the companies until they show that they have nothing to do with sweatshops. And obviously I am more calling out Nike, right? I mean, it’s pretty much a modern day slavery. And Nike is the biggest sponsor of the NBA. And there’s not one player, there’s not one team, or one owner– there is no support. And just what frustrates me is when there is money involved, when there is business involved, all of these companies and athletes and associations, and commission itself, it’s just quiet. So it’s sad. And that’s how I would explain it. 

HOOVER: You’ve said you haven’t left the NBA because you don’t want to lose your platform. Under what conditions would you boycott the NBA or leave the league?

KANTER FREEDOM: The one thing I have not left the league obviously it does educate so many young kids out there. But that’s my biggest motivation to educate all the kids out there. Now everywhere I go, every arena I go, they’re asking,  little kids are asking me about what’s happening over there in China. I’m trying to think. I love basketball. I am not thinking about, you know, quitting the NBA or anything like that. I love– I mean, I’ve dedicated  my whole life to this game. I just wish that– even like a simple statement from the commissioner, from the NBA, it will be– it will be enough for me, but they didn’t. I mean, they’re just too scared. 

HOOVER: You’ve leveled criticism at the king of the basketball court, LeBron James, for failing to stand up to China. You even designed a sneaker that featured a likeness of James kneeling before President Xi Jinping in front of bags of money. And you tweeted, quote, “money over morals for the king. Sad and disgusting how athletes pretend that they care about social justice. They really do shut up and dribble when Big Boss says so.” And you were referring to China by Big Boss. So, I mean, people will want to know, do you really believe that LeBron James is pretending to care about social justice issues like Black Lives Matter?

KANTER FREEDOM: I mean, first of all, he does care. He does care about, obviously, what’s happening in this country, you know. But you cannot call yourself more than an athlete, or social justice warrior, when the things that you are going to talk about is going to affect your money, your shoe sales or your jersey sales, or your endorsement deals. That is like the one thing that really frustrates me. And me referring to LeBron, obviously, he was not the only one. There are so many other athletes, so many other teams are just like sponsored by Nike. And that they’ve been talking about this situation happening in America, and it’s amazing. Cool. But when you get asked a question about China and you remain silent. You know, that is like the one thing that frustrates me. So I feel like I need to hold these people accountable. And I’m just calling them out. But I think one thing about him, obviously, I cannot say enough about his game on the court. But off the court he’s just– I don’t want to say he’s not educated. I don’t want to say I want to educate him and talk to him. Because I believe he might know even more than me. But people need, especially players, need to understand, when you put your signature on a paper and sign this multi-whatever million dollar contract with these companies, do a little research. Because once you put your signature, it’s not just your signature, it’s your face, it’s your brands, your everything.

HOOVER: LeBron, of course, is one of the most recognizable figures in the league. If he doesn’t know that one of the countries from which he is benefiting monetarily substantially is perpetrating what our government calls a genocide, you know, perhaps he would do well to sit down and visit with you. You have said you would like to sit down and talk to him. Why haven’t you called him?

KANTER FREEDOM: I would love to. It would be a very uncomfortable situation, and I don’t think he will even pick up the phone. I can try, but I don’t think he will even pick up the phone. 

HOOVER: Why don’t you try?

KANTER FREEDOM: I can try it. I would actually like to–

HOOVER: You should!

KANTER FREEDOM: Because, I mean, it will go so far if I say something. But if he says something, obviously it’s going to be everywhere in the world, and it will put so much pressure on the Chinese government, on the people, and the league. The reason I have not done it, because it actually broke my heart. Many of my colleagues I did reach out to; not him, but many other people around the league. And what they told me really broke my heart. They said, ‘Listen, I think what you’re doing is so amazing. And I think what you’re doing is so inspirational. Keep doing what you’re doing, but we cannot support you out loud, because we have families to feed. We have lots of endorsement deals.’ They signed with Nike. Or even– people don’t know this, but when LeBron and the Lakers came to Boston, during the game, in a free throw, one of his teammates said, ‘Keep doing what you’re doing.’ He said he has so much to say, but just because, he said, these teams got us, he cannot talk about any of the problems that are happening in the NBA. Because he said, I need another contract. So that is the one thing that really frustrates me and broke my heart. I’m like, wow, this is just crazy, you know? So I did reach out to many players around the league, but they said, ‘Listen, we love you, we support you, we’re going to pray for you, but we just cannot do it out loud.’

HOOVER: So you’ve criticized Nike for its reported use of Uyghur forced labor in its supply chain. You know, the company, Nike, has denied those allegations. And in October, you wore Nike sneakers covered with blood, and the message said ‘made with slave labor.’ So in 2020, to be fair to Nike, they put out a statement acknowledging concern over reports of forced labor in Xinjiang, but added that they do not source products from the region. What do you need to hear from Nike to be convinced that it is not profiting off of forced labor?

KANTER FREEDOM: I think one thing that I need to hear from them is, OK, they said they are going to shut down all the sweat shops going forward, especially Xinijiang. Because I think what they’re going through is heartbreaking. So once I hear that I will have to research with my people and see if they have really done it or not.

HOOVER: In late October, you participated in a rally in Washington, D.C., to encourage the passage of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which passed unanimously in the Senate and almost unanimously in the House of Representatives. President Biden signed it. And what the law does is it promises to keep goods made with forced labor in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region out of U.S. markets, and to impose sanctions related to forced labor. You know, what is the next thing that needs to be done?

KANTER FREEDOM: My next project, there are other bills out there that we’re working on. There is another bill that would be working with some of the activist Hong Kongers. I want to actually create another bill for Tibetan people. But I think the next step is to try to put as much pressure as we can towards China. 

HOOVER: You have spoken– you’ve spent a lot of time talking to both Republicans and Democrats on these issues. You’re sort of a nonpartisan advocate for human rights. And you’ve also spent a lot of time going on different media outlets trying to elevate these issues. 

CARLSON: Enes Kanter Freedom plays for the Boston Celtics and he joins us tonight…

HOOVER: Now one program you went on got more criticism than the rest, and that was Tucker Carlson’s who– probably because he has a history of promoting conspiracy theories, and he’s been criticized for pretty xenophobic rhetoric– You know, one of the things he has said is that Democrats are trying to replace the current electorate with more obedient voters from the Third World. And that’s a theory known as the great replacement theory. You know, you’re an immigrant. Our country is made of immigrants. How do you think about whether some places you might choose to appear might actually undermine the message that you’re trying to elevate?

KANTER FREEDOM: That is, that’s a good question, because obviously the question you asked me is the same question that my teammates were asking. But I want to– I want to explain. There is a message, and I want to get this message to every part of the country. It doesn’t matter if you’re Republican, you’re Democrat, you’re far right, you’re far left. There’s a really good message and it talks about human rights. Right? And obviously some of the programs I attend does get a lot of criticism. But the one thing, I never talk about politics. I never go on to the shows to talk about a ton of political stuff. I always talk about how China is abusing people’s rights. 

HOOVER: Would you go back on Tucker Carlson’s show?

KANTER FREEDOM: I mean, good question. To talk about dictatorship regimes, to talk about how people are getting abused, I think so. But I would definitely try to make sure that it is okay with my teammates because they’re like my family. 

HOOVER: Let me ask you something about the NBA. The NBA released results for an All-Star fan vote in January. And the original tally showed that you received zero votes. And then a day later, the database with the tally was updated to show that you actually received 8,384 votes. 

KANTER FREEDOM: Yeah. 

HOOVER: A league spokesperson credited the issue to a technical error. Do you believe that explanation? 

KANTER FREEDOM: So I believe maybe they’re trying to do everything they can to make sure I don’t have that big platform to talk about what I want to talk about. Or maybe it is a technical issue. 

HOOVER: Do you think they’re trying to silence you? 

KANTER FREEDOM: [00:53:05] Oh, for sure they are. Not because of the–  I’m not just talking about the vote and stuff, but because of what they have done in the past, for sure. Yeah. 

HOOVER: How do you know? Or why do you think that? Because I mean it’s pretty clear you’ve given them a headache. 

KANTER FREEDOM: Oh, just because of– I wore those shoes that first game. Two officials came to me and said, ‘we are begging you, take their shoes off.’ And it was an amazing time because I was right before my citizenship test. I was like, ‘I have 27 amendments. My First Amendment is freedom of speech. You cannot take that away from me.’ So I was very, like, rough with them. And I was like, ‘Go tell your boss, I don’t care what they do, ban, fine. I’m not taking the shoes off.’

HOOVER: You know, there are people, Enes, who speculate that you’ve created enough of a headache for the NBA that you could be released from your team, the Celtics, and not signed by another NBA team for next year. Is there any validity to that speculation? 

KANTER FREEDOM: So recently, whenever I have a conversation with someone from the NBA or one of my ex-teammates, they’re like, ‘Listen, this is your farewell tour. Have fun with it. Enjoy it. I hope you win a championship because I don’t think you’re going to sign another contract after this.’ I was like, well—

HOOVER: Is that because of what you’ve said? 

KANTER FREEDOM: Yes, 100 percent because of what I said. I’m 29 years old, healthy, and I can play another six years. 

HOOVER: So if I understand you correctly, what you’re saying is you don’t think you’re going to be signed again because you’ve been so outspoken about your views. 

KANTER FREEDOM: I don’t want to say it because I don’t have the facts in my hand, because if I say, then I will be accusing them. 

HOOVER: But you suspect that’s the case. 

KANTER FREEDOM: That’s what I’m thinking, 

HOOVER: Enes Kanter Freedom, thanks so much for your time for joining me to discuss the issues, your advocacy, and your playing.

KANTER FREEDOM: It means a lot. Thank you so much. 

HOOVER: Twenty-four hours after our interview, just at the NBA trade deadline, Kanter Freedom was traded from the Boston Celtics to the Houston Rockets, a team whose own former general manager caused controversy in 2019 by tweeting support for Hong Kong’s freedom movement. Then, after being traded, Kanter Freedom was released, leaving him without a team — for now. It’s unclear whether it was his advocacy or his play that triggered the trade. His first social media post after the news broke? Quote: The world will be shocked. Will his next play be on the court or off? Stay tuned.