Enes Kanter is both an NBA player and a person without a country. This unusual combination has become a legal and political problem for the New York Knicks center. Kanter, who is averaging 14 points and 11 rebounds per game in the ’18-’19 season, will not travel to London to play in the Knicks-Washington Wizards game on Jan. 17.
Kanter and the Knicks have provided different, but not necessarily conflicting, rationales for Kanter missing the game. Following the Knicks’ 119-112 win against the Los Angeles Lakers on Friday, Kanter told media that he was missing the game “because of that freaking lunatic.” That so-called “freaking lunatic” is Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, whom Kanter has alternatively described as a “maniac”, “dictator” and the “Hitler of our century.” Kanter says that he could be “killed” in London if he travels there. The Knicks, however, say Kanter is missing the game because of an immigration issue.
Assessing Kanter’s rationale for missing the London game
Kanter’s problematic relationship with Erdoğan is well-documented. Born in Switzerland to Turkish parents in 1992, Kanter spent much of his childhood living in Turkey. He was also a legal Turkish citizen until May of 2017 when the Turkish government cancelled Kanter’s passport and charged him with crimes related to alleged involvement in an “armed terrorist organization.” Kanter is accused of using ByLock, an encrypted messaging app, to organize what Turkish authorities regard as treason and sedition. If Kanter returns to Turkey, it is thought that he would be immediately arrested and detained.
Kanter, whose parents and other relatives still reside in Turkey, has openly supported cleric Fethullah Gülen. Gülen is an avowed critic of Erdoğan and lives in exile in the U.S., reportedly in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania. Erdoğan, who came to power in 2014, contends that Gülen attempted to orchestrate a coup of Erdoğan’s government in 2016. Gülen is a central figure in charges brought by the U.S. Justice Department against former associates of Michael Flynn, the former National Security Advisor to President Donald Trump who in December 2017 pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI. Those associates, Bijan Rafiekian and Kamil Ekim Alptekin, are accused of using illegal means to influence U.S. politicians in order to procure the extradition of Gülen to Turkey. Should Gülen be extradited to Turkey, he would presumably face swift punishment by Erdoğan’s government.
It’s unclear if Kanter’s concerns about being killed in London are based on any actionable evidence or government intelligence, or whether he is opportunistically using an immigration legal issue to advance a political viewpoint. In 2016, John Simpson of The Times reported on accusations brought against Turkish intelligence services—the National Intelligence Organization or MIT—in the murder of a Kurdish man, described as a dissident, who was shot in the back of the head while playing backgammon in a London café. There have also been reports of violent and in some cases deadly feuds between Turkish gangs that reside in London. However, it’s unclear if those gang incidents are related to political matters.
England also experienced a highly-publicized assassination attempt in March 2018. Two Russian agents are accused of traveling to southwest England to use Novichok, weapons-grade nerve agent, in a plot to kill former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal. Skripal was injured in the attempt while his daughter and three British citizens, one of whom, Dawn Sturgess, died, were also poisoned. Although deeply alarming that such a foreign-orchestrated scheme could be carried out on British soil, a poisoning incident involving Russians seems unrelated to Kanter and his issues with the Turkish government.
Assessing the Knicks’ rationale for Kanter missing the London game
For their part, the Knicks claim that Kanter is missing the Wizards game because of a visa problem. The Knicks’ explanation matches up with what is known about Kanter’s immigration status.
In 2016, Kanter reportedly received a U.S. green card, which makes him a permanent resident of the United States of America. With his green card, Kanter can remain in the U.S. indefinitely. Unlike with certain visas, Kanter’s permanent resident status is not contingent upon continued employment with a U.S. employer. A green card lets someone stay for any length, so long as they abide by the laws.
Yet Kanter may not always want to be in the U.S. This is where his immigration situation becomes problematic, including in relationship to his NBA career. A person with a green card is not eligible for a U.S. passport. A passport is, of course, usually needed to travel outside the U.S and return.
Kanter lacks a valid passport from any country. The Turkish government cancelled his Turkish passport in 2017 and in order to obtain a U.S. passport, Kanter would need to become a U.S. citizen.
Fortunately for Kanter, he can travel to Canada without a passport to play the Toronto Raptors. Canada doesn’t obligate U.S. citizens or permanent residents to enter the country by land with a passport (so long as the citizen or permanent resident has other documents and meets additional requirements).
It’s a different story for Kanter to travel to other countries, including those in Europe. Kanter needs a valid passport to travel to those places. To the extent the NBA intends to play games outside of North America, Kanter will be poised to miss those games.
For the time being, this is probably a minor inconvenience for Kanter and the Knicks. There is no NBA franchise based out of North America. Occasional preseason or regular season NBA games played in other parts of the world are unlikely to cause Kanter to miss more than a game or two every few years.
However, there has been periodic talk of the NBA contemplating franchise expansion into Europe. No doubt, that concept would face a number of logistical hurdles, including possible opposition by NBA players due to impact on travel. There are potential antitrust/competition law issues related to age and player eligibility (a particular concern if the NBA and NBPA do not lower their collectively-bargained prohibition against players who are not yet 19 years old). Also, there are U.S. cities that seem like better fits for near-term NBA expansion—with Seattle, the former home of the SuperSonics and the country’s 12th largest media market, probably at the top of the list.
Still, it’s not far-fetched to assume that the NBA will at some point expand outside of the U.S. and Canada. Whether the 26-year-old Kanter is still playing in the NBA at that time remains to be seen.
Even if the lack of a passport doesn’t substantially interfere with Kanter’s NBA career, it could nonetheless adversely impact his professional basketball career. For instance, it could preclude Kanter from playing in certain international competitions in Europe, South America or Asia. Also, Kanter might one day wish to continue his basketball career beyond the NBA, such as when his skills and athleticism age-decline in his mid 30s. His lack of a valid passport would interfere with his chances to sign with a foreign team.
Outside of basketball, Kanter, who has earned $73 million over his eight seasons in the NBA, may simply wish to travel the world. Again, he’ll need a valid passport to do so.
Kanter’s immigration issues are not necessarily permanent
The good news for Kanter is that he could become a U.S. citizen in 2021. Under U.S. immigration law, Kanter is eligible to become naturalized citizen upon completion of five years as a permanent resident. This process is by no means “automatic.” There are a variety of steps involved. Kanter would need to pass a background check and obtain a sufficient score on an English and civics test. Likewise, Kanter would need to interview with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officials and receive a favorable review.
Kanter could actually become a U.S. citizen as soon this year, but he would need to find his soulmate, if you will. U.S. immigration law permits permanent residents who have been in the U.S. for three years and who marry a U.S. citizen to become citizens after three years. Kanter has lightheartedly noted that he’s received marriage proposals from Americans on social media. It appears, though, he’ll wait for 2021 or his true love, whichever comes first.
The Crossover will keep you updated on the latest developments on Kanter.
Michael McCann is SI’s legal analyst. He is also Associate Dean of the University of New Hampshire School of Law and editor and co-author of The Oxford Handbook of American Sports Law and Court Justice: The Inside Story of My Battle Against the NCAA.