Did Enes Kanter Freedom really hop the Fox News ‘shut up and dribble’ bandwagon? I asked him

The Boston Celtics center received plenty of criticism after his appearance on Tucker Carlson Tonight. But his views are a little more nuanced than some perceive

Enes Kanter Freedom has had an intriguing basketball career. He was barred from playing college basketball at the University of Kentucky because he had received benefits from his time playing professional basketball in Turkey as a teenager. And since being drafted as the No 3 overall pick in the 2011 draft, he has played for five different NBA teams and is currently in his second spell with the Boston Celtics.

But it is off the court where Freedom has attracted the most attention. He has spoken out on human rights violations both in China and Turkey, where he grew up. His criticism of Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, led to reprisals against his family and Freedom’s Turkish passport being cancelled. More recently, he has taken aim at LeBron James for his sponsorship deal with Nike and the company’s alleged ties to forced labor in China. Then last month, he became a US citizen and legally changed his name from Enes Kanter to Enes Kanter Freedom.

Freedom’s political activity down the years went mostly unnoticed to most of America. If there was a reaction, it was generally one of support across the political spectrum. The right welcomed his attacks on one of their foes, Communist China, while liberals admired his fight against Erdoğan, a leader in the mold of Trump.

That all changed when Freedom went on Fox News’s Tucker Carlson Tonight. He appeared to attack players like LeBron, Colin Kaepernick and the entire new generation of athlete activists who have spoken out about human rights violations in the United States: state-sanctioned violence including the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Terence Crutcher, Atatiana Jefferson, Botham Jean, Sean Monterrosa, Willie McCoy, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and many others. “I feel like they should just keep their mouth shut and stop criticizing the greatest nation in the world and they should focus on their freedoms and their human rights and democracy,” Kanter told Carlson, who couldn’t hide his exuberance that Freedom took the bait.

The backlash was swift. In the Atlantic Jemele Hill wrote that “the subtext of Carlson’s question was obvious: Most NBA players are Black, and Carlson frequently portrays people of color who seek political and social change as ungrateful and unpatriotic.” In the Nation, Dave Zirin said that Carlson “looked like a rosy-cheeked, spoiled child under the Christmas tree. For him, having Enes attack powerful outspoken Black people must feel like getting the gift topping his list for Santa.”

I understand the points Hill and Zirin made and agree with much of what they say. And while I’m aware of Maya Angelou’s quote that “when people show you who they are, believe them the first time”, I didn’t believe the Carlson interview was indicative of what Freedom really feels.

Many on the left have begun to undermine the altruism of Freedom’s endeavors or ridicule his playing career (a tactic straight out of the right’s playbook when they disagree with an athlete). So I reached out to him to give him an opportunity to clarify or double down on what he told Carlson.

We started off by talking about his statement on Carlson’s show that players should appreciate the freedoms they have in America compared to countries like China and Turkey and “stop criticizing the greatest nation in the world”. Was he effectively using a familiar trope of the right: that players like LeBron should shut up and dribble?

“What I meant was, where I’m coming from, Turkey is a brutal dictatorship,” Freedom told me. “We have no freedom of speech, religion or expression. We have no democracy. Turkey could have been a branch of Islam in the west, but just because of all the stuff that’s happen … it’s impossible.

“So what I meant was, people should feel lucky and blessed to be in this situation [in America]. And obviously there are many issues in America. I’m definitely not denying it. I recognize many of them and racism is definitely at top of the list. But what I meant was at least, they’re not in a country like Turkey, Syria, North Korea, Venezuela or Belarus.”

That, however, does not mean Freedom believes players in America should stay silent about problems in this country. “Obviously I stand for freedom and I would never, ever tell an athlete or not just an athlete, a human being or a celebrity to not use their platform. Because obviously the greatest thing we have is freedom of speech,” he said.

Freedom did, however, fall into Carlson’s trap. Tuckums (as MSNBC’s Joy Reid calls him) was actually smiling as Freedom appeared to endorse Carlson’s view that anyone who criticizes America is an enemy of America. During our conversation Freedom acknowledged that his words had been twisted.

“I saw some of the op-eds, and some of the interviews, and some of the comments and so many people didn’t understand what I was trying to say,” he said. “And I don’t judge them because obviously somebody used my words … and some of the words that I used could be twisted or stretched. And I have to be more careful with my words.”

I am glad that I sat down with Enes Kanter Freedom and gave him the opportunity to clarify his statements. But there’s no question Tucker Carlson knew exactly what he was doing and his agenda was clear: Get Enes Kanter Freedom on while he is excited about becoming a US citizen and coax him into criticizing other Black athletes who aren’t (in his eyes) as grateful and thankful to be in America as they should be, who have the audacity to criticize America and call out police brutality and white supremacy. Fox News only wants to continue their mantra that athletes (at least the ones who don’t fall in line with their agenda) should shut up and dribble, and not dare to criticize the good ol’ USA.

Hopefully, this is a learning experience for Freedom and he won’t allow himself to be played by the likes of Fox News again. They do not care about human rights in China or Turkey. They are only out to use him as a pawn.