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Enes Kanter and the NBA Model of Activism

The Thunder center continues to speak out against the Turkish government after being held at a Romanian airport. In doing so, he’s won the support of the league — and followed its lead in using its platform to effect change.

(AP Images)
(AP Images)

Enes Kanter knows what we expect from him. He knows that when he appears on screens across America, his audience expects him to play basketball. Or else to talk about playing basketball, or about other basketball players, or about the Oklahoma City Thunder, or about silly, related things: his bromance with teammate Steven Adams, or his vocal Russell Westbrook–for-MVP campaign. He knows that viewers want to see him do this, and he also knows that this collective wanting means that we will watch whatever he does. So Kanter has set about making the NBA’s spotlight his own, wielding the platform in much the same way that the league itself has done.

The 6-foot-11 center said as much Monday, two days after he says he was stopped at an airport in Romania and informed that his Turkish passport had been "canceled" while traveling on a tour for the Enes Kanter Light Foundation. "The reason behind it is just, of course, my political views," he said in a video posted online after he was detained. Now back in the U.S. after a State Department intervention, Kanter held a press conference at the National Basketball Players Association headquarters in Manhattan, where he made clear that he intends to continue to use his basketball fame to publicize human rights violations in Turkey and to criticize Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

"I’m not a journalist, I’m a basketball player," Kanter said Monday. "But right now, my family can’t even go out to eat. My brother told me my dad went to the supermarket and they spit on his face. I try to be the voice of those innocent people."

In recent years, Kanter, a six-year NBA veteran who has lived in the United States since 2009 and holds a green card, has emerged as a prominent critic of Erdogan, whom Kanter called "the Hitler of our century." Kanter has thrown his support behind Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic cleric who lives in the United States and is a major source of tension between the U.S. and Turkey. Last summer, after Erdogan accused Gulen of orchestrating an unsuccessful coup against him, Kanter said that his family had cut off contact with him because of his political views. In the same statement, he signed his last name "Gulen" in a show of support. On Monday, the center said he hadn’t spoken to his parents in more than a year.

While his loud and uncompromising approach may not be exactly what NBA minders want from their star, it’s clear Kanter has won the backing of the league. Though he said that he hadn’t spoken to commissioner Adam Silver, on Monday Kanter talked about receiving messages of support from teammates, Thunder general manager Sam Presti, and the NBPA.

Kanter’s insistence on redirecting basketball’s spotlight to other issues, after all, follows a strategy the NBA itself has pioneered. Under Silver, the league has frequently waded into social and political issues — or allowed, if not outright encouraged, its players to do so — in a way seldom seen in professional sports. Consider the NBA’s decision to move the 2017 All-Star Game out of Charlotte following the 2016 introduction of North Carolina’s infamous (and now-revoked) "bathroom bill," or Donald Sterling being forced to sell the Clippers and receiving a lifetime ban in 2014 after the erstwhile owner was recorded making racist statements. Consider how, at a time when athletes in other leagues are being ostracized for espousing political messages, players were supported in their responses to the Black Lives Matter movement. Silver has repeatedly shown himself willing to wield the NBA’s heft — financial, social, and political — to make statements on social justice and, sometimes, to try to effect change. Under Silver, the league has foundationally refused to stick to sports, and so it should come as little surprise that Kanter’s efforts have the backing of the folks upstairs.

Kanter has been on a media blitz since his return to the U.S., where he says he will seek citizenship. Before his morning press conference, he made a stop by CBS This Morning; by Monday evening, he’ll have appeared on Viceland’s Desus & Mero, hours after speaking with ESPN’s Bob Ley on Outside the Lines. Kanter will have been given the spotlight to spread his message, something that may not be new — the center himself spoke out against Donald Trump’s travel ban in January — but it is the latest striking example of how the NBA has embraced an expansive view of its role in the sports landscape. The league has recently been willing to throw its weight around under an apparent guiding principle that it has more power, and perhaps more responsibility, to act on political issues than athletic governing bodies have generally been willing to recognize. In the process, it’s provided its players with an outlet to do the same.