Enes Freedom Expands NBA Activism

Alexander Bingham, Sports Editor

National Basketball Association (NBA) players are no strangers to activism. Movements such as Black Lives Matter (BLM) have gained widespread support from the players and the league as a whole. However, while the many Black players and fans make movements like BLM very profitable for the NBA, the league still draws a strong international audience that includes several authoritarian regimes. Celtics center Enes Kanter Freedom has been very outspoken against issues in those countries, most notably China and his home country of Turkey, pushing the league and its fans to reckon with their complicity to injustices abroad. 

On December 1st, Freedom finally became an American citizen, an occasion which he marked by changing his name from Enes Kanter to Enes Kanter Freedom. He told the Boston Globe, ​​“America has taught me so much. You’ve got freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of expression, freedom of press. Just because of what you guys are writing, you guys are not in jail. But so many of your colleagues in Turkey are suffering and are in jail because they are doing their job. I want to carry that word [freedom] with me everywhere I go.” 

Despite all the criticism and death threats that he has received, there has also been an outpouring of support for Freedom.

Freedom, a Turkish native, first started speaking out on social issues when he criticized the actions of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government in Turkey. More recently, Freedom has increasingly targeted the actions of the Chinese government. He has appeared at games wearing shoes showing messages such as, “Free Tibet,” “Free the Uyghurs,” or “No Beijing 2022.” He has also been very active on social media, calling out Lebron James, pointing out the hypocrisy in James’ activism on domestic issues and his silence towards Nike—James’ sponsor—and the NBA for their ties to the Chinese government. Freedom tweeted, “Sad & disgusting how these athletes pretend to care about social justice. They really do ‘shut up and dribble’ when Big Boss [Chinese flag emoji] says so.” This is a direct response to James’ previous statement that he will not “shut up and dribble” with regards to the BLM movement. Freedom has also appeared at press conferences wearing a shirt that reads “Free Tibert, Free Taiwan, Free Hong Kong, Free the Uyghurs,” and on multiple news networks where he has called for a boycott of the 2022 Beijing Olympic Games. 

Freedom’s actions have not been without consequences, though. After his criticism of Erdoğan, his Turkish citizenship was revoked and his games were censored in Turkey. The Turkish government also targeted his family by imprisoning his father on charges of terrorism. Boston Celtics games have been removed from air in China after his more recent remarks. Even domestically, Freedom has drawn criticism for calling out a very popular player in James. Freedom’s actions have been labeled by some as a way to get attention towards the end of his career, a similar reaction to Colin Kaepernick’s infamous activism in 2016.

Despite all the criticism and death threats that he has received, there has also been an outpouring of support for Freedom. During his first game following his citizenship, fans chanted “Freedom” after he checked in and when he scored. Even at a recent away game, Freedom spent time after the game meeting the many Portland Trail Blazers fans who had come to support him. Pushing for social change has certainly been an uphill battle for Freedom, but his work has made the sports world more comfortable with activism that goes against what is profitable to them. 

This piece also appears in our December 2021 print edition.