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On Darfur, LeBron James drops the ball

Why won't the basketball star sign a petition for human rights?

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Athletic. Amazing. Powerful. Phenomenal.

America's airwaves are jammed with superlatives to describe basketball star LeBron James, who began his first semifinal playoff series this week. No matter how Mr. James's Cleveland Cavaliers fare in their matchup against the Detroit Pistons, however, I've got my own description for his off-court decisions.

Cowardly.

James's teammate Ira Newble recently helped draft an open letter to the Chinese government, condemning its role in the ongoing genocide in Darfur. Everybody on the Cavaliers signed the letter except for James and Damon Jones. James said he didn't have enough information about the issue to take a stand. Mr. Jones wouldn't comment.

We can choose to take them at their word, of course – or we can follow the money. Jones has an endorsement contract with an up-and-coming Chinese shoe and apparel company. James has a $90 million deal with Nike, which has huge business interests in China.

And China has enormous interests in Sudan, where at least 200,000 people have been killed – and 2.5 million displaced – since 2003. Desperate to locate new energy sources, the Chinese invest a billion dollars a year in Sudan and purchase two-thirds of its oil. Proceeds from these sales help fund the Arab militia known as the janjaweed, which continues to murder, rape, and dismember non-Arabs in Sudan's western region of Darfur.

As Beijing prepares to host the 2008 Olympic Games, however, the Chinese have shown signs of softening their stance. Criticized by other Hollywood celebrities for serving as an artistic adviser to the Olympics, film director Steven Spielberg sent a letter in April urging China to help end "human suffering" in Sudan. Shortly thereafter, China dispatched an envoy to encourage the Sudanese government to accept a United Nations peacekeeping force in Darfur.

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