Athlete activism has come under heavy fire recently , often with an ugly, implicit, coded message behind the criticism: “your job is to play ball. I don’t want to see, hear, or know about the rest.” The reality is that athletes have always held views that are at times counter to their audience. It’s just that the lines of access are now blurred, and an athlete’s views are part and parcel of their brand, whether fans like it or not.
With the recent international controversy surrounding him, Enes Kanter has proven that athletes can be natural and effective activists. Although the circumstances were not of his choosing, Kanter leveraged the situation perfectly to advance awareness of what’s happening in his home country of Turkey.
When the news broke that Enes Kanter had been detained at a Romanian airport because his passport had been cancelled, my heart sank. I immediately feared the worst for him. If he were to be deported to Turkey, he would’ve been jailed and possibly never heard from again, like so many Turks before him. That would have been worst-case scenario, but in these tumultuous times, it’s hard not to go there.
He is now a man without a country. Luckily, he’s got an adopted home in Oklahoma and the United States. The next step, he says, is getting his American citizenship.
As a student of the world, I’ve been paying attention to what’s been going in Turkey. The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has been taking increasingly authoritative actions towards his own citizens — Kanter referred to him as a Hitleresque dictator — and will continue to expand his already considerable power in the future. Erdoğan’s recent visit to the States was embroiled in controversy after his guards beat, threatened, and attacked protestors outside of the Turkish ambassador’s residence in Washington, D.C.
Going into detail about all of Erdoğan censorship, human’s rights abuses, unfair detentions, and antisemitism would require an article in and of itself.
Kanter smartly leveraged the situation and swiftly embarked on a media tour after returning to the U.S., making the Turkish government look even more foolish than it already did:
— CBS This Morning (@CBSThisMorning) May 22, 2017
Although the man who Kanter supports — opposition leader Fethullah Gülen — is not without his share of controversy (he’s been accused of Kurdphobia in the past, for example), he’s far from the authoritarian leader Erdoğan is. It’s an affront to free will and the concept of liberty to take away a person’s country because they disagree with a president’s actions.
And it’s precisely because of this support that Enes can never return to Turkey, was (probably forcibly) disowned by his family, and is not allowed to play on the Turkish national team despite being arguably the country’s most gifted player ever.
For all of the personal reasons Kanter could criticize Erdoğan, he paints in broad strokes, and it shows awareness beyond his years. He didn’t have a choice but to grow up quickly. He obviously loves his original home and its people:
“I hope the whole world is watching this and all the human rights [groups],” Kanter said on Monday. “I want people to do something about it because there are a lot of people waiting for help in jail in Turkey, getting kidnapped, murdered, tortured, raped.”
It must all weigh incredibly heavily on the mind of the 25-year-old Kanter, who has endeared himself to Thunder fans with his relentlessly positive attitude and his sense of humor.
And here I am, just five months younger than Kanter, writing about Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in a manner that would probably get me jailed if I were a Turkish citizen. It was a more-than-gentle reminder that, while they often intersect, sports always takes a back seat to real life. I can tweet a casual, barely-developed political criticism without fear of reproach from any entity or person (well, besides anonymous Twitter users); when Kanter tweets a criticism about a leader who is essentially a dictator, he moves himself up on a list that he’s already pretty high on.
For all of the on-court criticisms one could level against Kanter, you must respect his firmness of purpose to stand for what he believes in the face of one of the most powerful men his country has ever seen. He lost his home, his family, and, if things had gone differently in Indonesia or Romania, he could have lost his lifestyle and livelihood.
It would have been easy for Enes to usehis circumstances to expand his brand, to get people to feel sorry for him, to duck and hide tail-between-legs and never speak of politics in Turkey again. A lesser person might have already taken any of those routes. It should be obvious by now that that’s not Kanter’s style. He’s concerned with the bigger picture:
“I love Turkey, I love my country,” Kanter said Monday. “I am trying to speak up and be the voice of all these innocent people. Erdogan, he is a terrible man. Of course this is a strong statement, I [said] that he is the Hitler of our century. I know it is a really strong statement. But all these people I have seen getting killed and murdered and tortured, that is definitely one of the saddest moments I have had. I hope the world is going to do something about it.”
Enes Kanter is doing more than his part in making sure the world knows about these injustices.