Although he gained initial attention for speaking out against the genocidal Chinese Communist Party, pro basketball player Enes Kanter Freedom has been a human rights advocate for nearly a decade now.
Freedom says he believes that due to his status as a famous athlete, having played for five NBA teams, he has a responsibility to speak up for causes he’s passionate about.
“If you are an athlete, you can inspire millions of people out there, especially kids, especially our young generation,” says Freedom, who was born in Switzerland to Turkish parents. “If you are well educated enough, if you know what you are talking about, yes, it is important to stand up for things that you believe in.”
Freedom, who became an American citizen last year, joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to share his story of getting involved in human rights activism. He also offers advice for those of us who want to make a difference in the world.
We also cover these stories:
- President Joe Biden announces that the U.S. is sending $800 million worth of military assistance to Ukraine in its ongoing resistance to Russia’s invasion.
- A group of Republican lawmakers asks the Biden administration to protect the rights of women and girls in sports.
- Entrepreneur and investor Elon Musk announces he has $46.5 billion lined up to buy Twitter.
Listen to the podcast or read the lightly edited transcript below.
Doug Blair: My guest today is Enes Kanter Freedom, a professional basketball player and human rights activist. Mr. Freedom, welcome to the show.
Enes Kanter Freedom: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.
Blair: Absolutely. You have a fascinating story of your time growing up in Turkey, and then moving from Turkey to America as an immigrant. Would you be able to go a little bit into your background for our listeners?
Freedom: Of course. I [was] actually born in Switzerland. I [wasn’t] born in Turkey. Because my dad was doing his master there. And then I moved back to Turkey when I was 9 months. And then I grew up in Turkey and I started playing basketball there, actually.
And then, unfortunately, you have to pick either education or basketball in Turkey. And then my dad wanted me to do them both, so that’s why I came here, United States. That was back in 2009. I was 17 years old, went to prep school here, went to college in Kentucky. Then I got drafted in 2011 by Utah Jazz.
Blair: Nice. Recently, you’ve become very famous for vocally criticizing the Chinese Communist Party and a lot of their human rights abuses there, but you actually have also had human rights abuse activism in Turkey as well. Would you be able to talk about how you got into this type of activism?
Freedom: Of course. I remember my first two years in a league, all I cared about was just playing basketball, having fun with my teammates and stuff. And there was a corruption scandal that happened in Turkey back in 2013 and President [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan and his family [were] involved in it.
And that was the first time I actually put a very simple tweet out there, because he was going around and putting innocent people in jail—police, prosecutors, judges, and some other innocent people.
And because of the NBA platform, it became a conversation. And I was like, even one simple tweet can affect this much. From now on, I’m going to start paying attention about what’s going on in my country.
So I started to study about the relationship between America and Turkey and the Middle East and the things that are happening in Turkey. And then the more I spoke, the more a big platform started to give me a huge platform.
Unfortunately, the things that I talk about affected me and my family. My dad was a genetic professor, he got fired from his job. My sister went to medical school for six years. She still cannot find a job. And my little brother was playing basketball. He got kicked out of every team.
Because of the same last name, they were getting affected so much. They had to put a statement out there and said, “We are disowning Enes.”
The Turkish government didn’t believe that. They sent police to my house in Turkey and they took every electronics away—phones, computers, laptops—because they wanted to see if I am still in contact with my family or not. Which, I wasn’t. And they still put my dad in jail for a while. But we put so much pressure from here in America to Turkey, they had to let him go.
Then after that they revoked my passport, put my name on an Interpol list and stuff. And this past, probably two weeks ago, that was the first time that I left United States and went to a Europe because I couldn’t, my name was on an Interpol list and I didn’t have any better passport.
Blair: How is your family doing now? I mean, are they OK?
Freedom: Yeah, they’re still back in Turkey. The last time I saw my family was back in 2015. Unfortunately, they’re not really allowed to come or go anywhere outside of Turkey because the Turkish government took their passport away. So they’re not really allowed to travel anywhere. But other than that, we’ve been trying to bring them over here for years and years. So, I mean, we’re just waiting for something to happen.
Blair: As I mentioned earlier, you recently became famous for talking about the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese government’s human rights abuses. So it sounds like after you talked about Turkey, you continued to talk about these human rights abuses going on around the world in other places. What was that like to have experienced that from the Turkish side and then to continue talking about that?
Freedom: Because the human right abuses are happening, not just in Turkey, but all over the world. I mean, the biggest one is happening right now in China.
It’s … actually a crazy story. I was doing a basketball camp in New York for little kids. And basketball camp was amazing, we had so much fun. And after the basketball camp, I was sitting on a chair and signing autographs and taking pictures with the kids. And I took a picture with this kid, and while I was taking a picture, his parents called me out in front of everybody.
There was media there. There was people, parents, kids, everybody. And he told me, “How can you call yourself a human rights activist when your Muslim brothers and sisters are getting tortured and raped every day in concentration camps in China?”
I was shocked. I didn’t know what to say. I turned around and I told the parents, “I promise I’m going to get back to you.” And that day I canceled everything I had. I went back to my hotel, I started to study about what people over there were going through. And I studied the Uyghurs and then I studied about what’s happening in Tibet.
I already knew about Hong Kong because two years ago, when the NBA [general manager] tweeted about Hong Kong, it became a huge conversation in the NBA. And then I already knew about Taiwan because I always wanted to go there. …
I mean, obviously, you can find every kind of news on the internet. Fake news, not fake news, this and that. So I wanted to actually hear about what’s going on over there from firsthand.
So I called my manager and I told him, “I want to have a sit-down conversation with someone who’s experienced in concentration camps.” And he was very shocked, actually. He was like, “What are you talking about?” I was like, “Yep. I want to talk to someone.” And so we set up this meeting.
And obviously, I don’t know who listens to this podcast. I’m sure that there are so many kids that watch it so I don’t want to get into too much details, but the things that she told me that she went through over there was just—I was speechless.
She told me about getting raped. She told me about the torture. And she told me about how many people actually are dying in those concentration camps and the Chinese government is trying to hide it from the whole world.
And I was like, I don’t care how much money or business is involved, if you are carrying a heart, you have to stand up for those innocent people. And you have to expose all this human right abuse that is happening in China. And then I decided to talk, and became a big mess for some people.
Blair: Yeah. Mentioning that, not everybody took your activism in a positive light. How has your activism impacted your career?
Freedom: I wish I could say in a really good way. Because obviously, I’m an NBA player, and all I wished and all I was praying was, I was like, “Please, God. Send me one more player … that can stand right next to me.”
Unfortunately, whenever I had a conversation with any of my teammates or someone from the NBA, or not just in the NBA, but some other organizations, they told me one thing. They said, “Listen, I think what you’re doing is so amazing. We love what you’re doing. We love you. We support you. But we just cannot do it out loud.”
I asked them, “Why?” They said, “Well, we have shoe deals. We have family to feed. We have another contract that we’re trying to get. So we just cannot do it.”
And I asked them one question. That if one of your family members was in those concentration camps getting tortured and raped, would you still pick money over morals? They couldn’t answer. And it was right before the Winter Olympics, too, so I did try to reach out to many Olympians. But unfortunately, not all meant it.
Blair: Yeah. You’ve mentioned a couple of times that you think the NBA and certain other organizations have silenced you and pushed you to the side because of your activism. I have a quote here that you gave to The National Herald, which is a Greek newspaper. It says, “The NBA says that the league stands by our side when it comes to freedom of speech. I don’t believe it. They stand on our side as long as what we say helps the league’s pockets. Otherwise, they’ll do whatever they can to finish you.”
Do you think that American companies, like the NBA and some other businesses that continue to do business with governments like the Chinese government, have a problem with kowtowing to these types of authoritarian world leaders and governments?
Freedom: So, the statement I gave, 100% correct. It’s a shame how these American companies are bowing down to these dictatorships—especially the biggest dictatorship, like the one in China.
I remember, it was around two years ago, when we all were an NBA bubble. NBA was all about social justice. All about Black Lives Matter and what can we do to just inspire our young generation? They even put some phrases behind our jerseys, some logos on the court and stuff, right? I was like, OK, cool.
But then what frustrates me is that two years later this happens, and not one person from the NBA or the Players Association or from my team or any of my colleagues goes out there and says, “We support Enes.” Not one. So the hypocrisy is what … really frustrates me.
So, I mean, I feel like besides WTA, Women’s Tennis Association, every organization, every association or company, first of all, should take a look at what WTA did. Look at that stuff. And someone needs to hold them accountable.
Blair: You mentioned that there has been activism in the sports world, like Black Lives Matter. I know Colin Kaepernick comes to mind when I think of activism in the sports world. Do you think that there is a place for activism in sports organizations?
Freedom: I mean, if you are an athlete, you can inspire millions of people out there, especially kids, especially our young generation. I say this every time. Because of the social media, they follow everything that we’re doing. So it can affect a lot, it can impact so many people out there.
And I think, I mean, if you are well educated enough, if you know what you are talking about, yes, it is important to stand up for things that you believe in.
But if you pick and choose, right? If you only pick the ones that is not going to affect your pocket, that is the lying that I’m going to go out there and expose. There are many athletes out there that will only criticize the things that won’t affect their pocket or business or their movies or their shoe deals. So that’s why I’m really frustrated about it.
Blair: So you see that it’s more of a distinction between maybe politically advantageous activism versus activism that actually has an impact on the world?
Blair: OK. You legally changed your last name to Freedom. This was a big story, that you had legally done this, that your name wasn’t Freedom and you decided to add that to your name. What motivated you to do that?
Freedom: We were actually just talking about it 10 minutes ago. A funny story, I tell this everywhere. I remember first time coming to America back in 2009. I was going to prep school, and one of my teammates actually criticized the president.
And I was very afraid for him because I was like, I thought he was going to be thrown in jail the next day. Because where I’m coming from, if you are criticizing the government, if you are saying anything against the president, you are the enemy of the state.
I give this example a lot, because it’s very crazy. My manager’s wife’s dad liked one of my posts on Twitter and he was thrown in jail for 13 days. … I just couldn’t believe it when he told me about it.
But then that teammate who criticized the president actually explained to me about what freedom’s all about—speech, religion, expression of press. I really didn’t understand it because I did not grow up having any of those.
And the more I meet with people, the more I sit down and have a conversation with the true, real Americans, I was like, wow. We are very blessed to be in a country where there are rules and laws and checks and balances.
There are tons of countries out there that, I mean, if you are a journalist and you write against the government, or if you’re a media outlet or if you’re a newspaper and you write anything against the regime, then all your media outlets will be shut down and the journalists will be in jail—it could get very tough.
So the reason I picked that name, because I want everyone to know how blessed they are.
Blair: I think that’s such a wonderful story. And it really does speak to, I think, a notion that’s missing from America these days, which is pride and a belief that America is good.
What do you think about the type of people who will go on air or TV or on the radio and say things like, “America is a bigoted country,” or, “It’s a racist country”? What are your thoughts about that?
Freedom: People need to understand, obviously, first of all, America having her own problems, too.
But at the same time, people need to understand—I’m coming from a country, like I said, again, you criticize anything, you’ll be thrown in jail the next day. Or there are countries out there like China or North Korea or like Turkey or Iran or many other countries—Russia, right? That there are no human rights, no democracy, no freedom, no freedom of speech.
People should feel very lucky and blessed to be in a country like America and should feel very blessed because, obviously, there’s democracy, there’s freedom. And you love the government, you hate the president, whatever you are, then you can tell all your feelings and you can actually put it out there. So people should definitely feel very lucky.
Blair: As we begin to wrap-up here, I’m curious what your thoughts are. As somebody who has been doing this type of activism for such a long time now, what do you think the most effective way for people who maybe don’t have a platform as big as yours, who aren’t NBA athletes, how should they engage in activism? What is the most effective way for them to do that?
Freedom: I mean, I feel like people always can impact whoever they live around. Their family, their classmates, or their teammates, or whatever you’re doing, you can impact one or two or three people. I mean, don’t say it’s only one or two per person. I mean, it’s important.
I would just say, don’t give up on inspiring anyone. One person is one person, you can change his whole life. You might not change the whole world, but you might change his world. So just be courageous and just go out there and just speak your mind.
Blair: Absolutely. That was Enes Kanter Freedom, a professional basketball player and human rights activist. Mr. Freedom, I very much appreciate your time.
Freedom: Thank you so much.
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