Update: A few hours after this story was published, the NBA terminated the relationship with the local company responsible for this tweet according to NBA Deputy Commissioner and COO Mark Tatum. The story has been updated.
Everyone knows that NBA Twitter is already one of the weirder parts of the internet but not many of us expected the best basketball league in the world to be complicit in overt political censorship.
@NBATurkiye, the NBA’s official Turkish news account, tried to erase Enes Kanter last night.
As a result, the NBA Commissioner’s office severed ties with the local company running the league’s Turkish social media accounts, the league told Gizmodo on Thursday.
Kanter, a Turkish basketball player for the Portland Trailblazers, is effectively living in exile from Turkey due to his conflicts with the country’s authoritarian leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The NBA, on the other hand, is voraciously hungry for global expansion and is willing to dance with dictators in the name of spreading the gospel of basketball. For example, don’t expect NBA commish Adam Silver to say much about the plight of Uighur Muslims if it gets in the way of his strategy of growth in China. On the contrary, that human rights atrocity may just be an opportunity for more basketball.
The Blazers are on a bit of a run in the playoffs right now and just last night they beat the Denver Nuggets in a pivotal Western Conference semifinal game. Kanter was one of his team’s most important players: He was near the top in minutes played, points scored, rebounds, shooting percentage, blocks and, well, you get the idea. Any record of the game should include him and, in fact, the NBA’s English language tweets do highlight his contributions right at the top.
So why was he invisible on the NBA Turkey Twitter account?
Kanter himself laid out the facts in a tweet highlighting how the American @NBA account highlighted Kanter while the Turkish account erased him.
As a result of this tweet, the NBA on Thursday terminated the relationship with the local vendor responsible for these tweets, the NBA told Gizmodo.
“Fans in Turkey can watch all playoff games featuring Enes Kanter and the Portland Trail Blazers on NBA League Pass and NBA TV International,” NBA Deputy Commissioner and COO Mark Tatum said. “The NBA Turkey Twitter account was managed by a local vendor and we are terminating that relationship.”
Erdogan has for years sought to put Kanter in jail. First, it was for insulting Erdogan himself, a crime in a country where free speech and free press rights are being cut back. More recently, Turkey accuses Kanter of being a terrorist and requested extradition.
In a statement on the floor on the U.S. Senate, Oregon Senator Ron Wyden recently came out strongly in support on Kanter and said that “the United States cannot and must not stand idly by while Enes and his family are subject to this autocratic torment.”
Earlier this year, when Kanter played for the New York Knicks, the New York Times dove deep into Kanter’s conflict with Turkey’s rulers:
For nearly six months, the Knicks have been anticipating their Jan. 17 road game against the Washington Wizards in London, where the accompanying festivities have the feel of an All-Star weekend no matter their less-than-stellar records.
One member of the team, however, now views the trip with dread and will be watching from his couch in New York.
Knicks center Enes Kanter, who is from Turkey, said this weekend that he had decided to skip the game because he fears for his life. An outspoken critic of Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Kanter said he worried Turkish spies might kill him there.
It was a dramatic escalation of his longstanding criticism of Erdogan and a reflection of the way Kanter has been determined to use his fame as an athlete for political activism he considers crucial and dire.
There is obviously much more behind this than a single censored tweet. Kanter is connected with Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric living in exile who the Turkish government accuses of orchestrating a deadly coup attempt in 2016.
In the aftermath of 2016, the Turkish government jailed over 60,000 individuals including political opponents, journalists, academics and critics. The Washington Post editorial board said, “Erdogan is transforming Turkey into a totalitarian prison.”
Kanter is not shy about his criticism of Turkey’s ruling regime. He regularly speaks, tweets and writes articles about the problems of his home country. Erdogan, an authoritarian strongman who has imposed heavy censorship and successfully jailed his enemies, a trend that has increased in prominence aggressively ever since 2016.
“You guys need to know what is going on in Turkey right now,” Kanter wrote in 2017. “I hope people around the world will open their eyes to the human rights abuses. Things have gotten very bad over the last year. This is not my opinion. We don’t know everything that is happening inside Turkey, but we do know some facts. Newspapers and media have been restricted. Academics have been fired. Peaceful protesting is not allowed. Many people have been imprisoned without any real charges. There are reports of torture and rape and worse.”
Compared to everything else going on in Turkey over the last three years, it’s a small thing to erase a critic of Turkey’s rulers from a tweet about basketball. But it’s an act that’s connected directly to the NBA, an American league that has boasted in recent years about its players’ ability to speak out politically at a time when other leagues have aggressively curtailed their players’ rights to do that.
I’ll leave it to this random Twitter user with the solid GIF response: