Foreign Policy Blogs

On Enes Kanter and Politics in Sport

On Enes Kanter and Politics in Sport

The “Free Tibet” shoes worn by Enes Kanter


Enes Kanter has reemerged on the political stage.

The eleven year NBA veteran made waves after wearing a pair of speakers expressing support for Tibetan independence. The game between Kanter’s Boston Celtics and the New York Knicks was being broadcast around the world, until the feed was abruptly cut off for Chinese consumers by Tencent, the Chinese media conglomerate that is licensed to show NBA games in the Chinese market. On that same day, Kanter posted a three minute video to his twitter feed in which he condemns China’s repression of Tibet, and wore a shirt featuring the Dalai Lama- something that is considered a crime in China.

Despite backlash from Chinese state media, two days after this first public demonstration, Kanter made another post to his twitter in which he highlighted the horrific treatment of the Uyghurs population in China and damned Xi Jinping as a brutal dictator. In the following days, he has continued to make posts directly challenging Xi and condemning the slave labor that he believes takes place in Chinese reeducation camps. 

I highly encourage each of you to listen to Kanter’s statements yourself.

This is far from Kanter’s first serious venture into politics. He has long been a vocal critic of the Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who Kanter considers a dictator, and wears his arrest warrant as a badge of honor. As a consequence of his political activities, Kanter has suffered a tragic personal cost- his father was sent to prison in 2018

Additionally, Kanter has been outspoken regarding his views on American politics. Alongside athletes like Colin Kaepernick and LeBron James, Kanter has participated in protests against racist policing in the United States. Earlier this year, Kanter expressed his support for the Covid-19 vaccine, saying that players have a responsibility to be role models and work to promote public health. 

In order to understand what makes Kanter’s public statements on China so interesting, it is important that we understand the tremendous popularity of the NBA in China. Over 500 million Chinese watched an NBA game last year, and the sport has seen tremendous growth following the popularity of stars like Kobe Bryant, Steph Curry, and Yao Ming in China’s domestic market.

Despite the nationalistic rubmilings that appeared on social media in the wake of Kanter’s comments on Xi’s regime, there is reason to believe that the Chinese people continue to love the NBA and its biggest stars. Some 40 million Chinese fans play the NBA 2k basketball video game, and video recordings from NBA games held in Chinese arenas suggest major fan support.

Given the huge support (through both fans and finances) for the NBA in China, and given the wide-reaching censorship employed by the Chinese government, Kanter’s public position could present a problem for both the CCP and the National Basketball Association. China’s dedicated NBA fans will surely notice that all Boston Celtics games have been removed from their servers, and even in the face of Chinese misinformation many fans will become aware of the censorship. More than that, the NBA stands to lose some $1.5 billion in broadcast rights alone over the next five years if China were to completely ban the showing of NBA games. Kanter’s tweets and sneakers have certainly put a lot of very important people on their toes- this is the benefit of speaking truth to power.

Given Kanter’s consistent support for other types of social justice issues, the NBA, Nike, and other groups that do business with China will have a difficult time ignoring his criticism of their behavior. Dismissing Kanter as a consequence of this particular set of political activities -condemning China- would highlight the inconsistency that groups may have regarding their commitment to human rights- like support for Black Lives Matter.

All of this takes place in the foreground to the 2022 Winter Olympics which will be held in China. There are real questions about how the repressive elements of the CCP will respond to athletes who have become increasingly outspoken about social justice and human dignity. Should China respond in traditional “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy fashion to Kanter’s comments, other athletes will surely take notice, and hopefully work to resist the attempt at censorship. 

Politics and sports have long been interconnected. Jackie Robbinson, Jesse Owens, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, Muhammad Ali, Colin Kaepernick and now Enes Kanter, there is tremendous power when public figures use their platforms to fight against injustice and repression. Kanter’s ongoing activism protesting the cruelty of Xi’s government in China is the next leg in this proud legacy.



Please join the Foreign Policy Association today, October 28th, in welcoming Mr. Carl Gershman, who was President of the National Endowment for Democracy from its foundation in 1984 until 2021. Mr. Gershman will be delivering the annual John B. Hurford Memorial Lecturetitled, “Reflections on NED’s Past and Democracy’s Future”.  If you are interested, please register for the event here



Peter Scaturro is the Director of Studies at the Foreign Policy Association