'They were afraid it would hurt LeBron's feelings': US watchdog has ads pulled accusing NBA star James of hypocrisy over China

The designers of a set of giant billboards accusing LeBron James of failing to speak out on Chinese human rights abuses have been thwarted by a sign company, hitting back at the snub by claiming his sneakers involve ‘slave labor’.

Officials from the National Legal and Policy Center (NLPC) said their spotlight on social activist James’s lucrative line of shoes, which are made by Nike and produced in China, contained a message that was “too important to be suppressed”.

They had hoped to spend “several hundred thousand dollars” on five billboards near the NBA bubble in Orlando, showing James with a Chinese flag covering his mouth and the words “silence is violence”.

Billboard promoters Outfront Media were afraid that the adverts would upset the richest basketball player in the world, according to the New York Post.

Tim Anderson, of the Center, told the Post: “It’s utterly amazing that LeBron James can buy a $36 million Beverly Hills mansion from a bubble designed to cut him off from the outside world yet he can’t find a way to champion basic human rights for all people, including those suffering under the Communist regime of China.”

James has thrown his weight behind the Black Lives Matter campaign and invested millions of dollars in campaigns to improve racial equality in the US, joined by a $40 million investment in social and racial justice and education initiatives announced by Nike earlier this year.

He has been less supportive of the high-profile human rights protests in Hong Kong, claiming that Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey “wasn’t educated on the situation” when he backed pro-democracy supporters there last year.

Last month, he further enraged many basketball fans in Hong Kong when he tweeted his support for Adrian Wojnarowski, the ESPN basketball reporter who was suspended after writing “f*ck you” to US Senator Josh Hawley in an email about the official’s criticism of the NBA’s relations with China.

Los Angeles Lakers talisman James has made trips to China in the past to promote his brand of trainers as part of his $1 billion lifelong deal with Nike.

The brand-savvy NBA great will be keenly aware that any breakdown in relations with Beijing would be likely to affect Nike’s ability to sell products in the huge Chinese market.

“They thought that we were singling him out and were afraid that the ad would hurt LeBron’s feelings,” explained Tim Cramer, of the LA-based advertising firm that created the adverts, adding that Outfront had stopped returning calls and emails because James’s image was on the design.

“But we were never going after LeBron James the person. We were going after his brand.”

The Center said that the sneakers bearing the endorsement of James, who has an estimated net worth of $480 million, were produced by Chinese “slave labor”.

The Post said that Outfront and James had not returned requests for comment, but a Nike spokesman replied to the claims about the trainers, which sell for around $200 a pair, by saying that the company “takes very seriously any reports about forced labor”.

Peter Flaherty, the chair of the NLPC, said: “When it comes to human rights in China, silence is indeed violence.

“We should be able to call LeBron on his hypocrisy without this censorship.”

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