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opinion

WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner is escorted to a courtroom for a hearing, in Khimki just outside Moscow, Russia, on July 7.The Associated Press

LeBron James is a man of the world, but like a lot of Americans, his world ends at either coast.

James took some heat this week after popping off about how Washington has dealt with the detention of basketball star Brittney Griner. Griner is being held in a Russian jail on a drug offence.

She’s pleaded guilty to bringing cannabis oil into the country, where she was barnstorming during the WNBA off-season. Despite having admitted fault, Griner’s trial is ongoing. She faces 10 years in prison.

As happens when any famous person is detained anywhere, Griner’s case has become a drum to beat for a certain sort of morally upstanding celebrity. Understanding their total lack of sophistication when it comes to international legal affairs, sports stars used to avoid diplomatic issues with serious consequences for real people. But nowadays no situation is so complicated that every boldface name shouldn’t have a really simple, really public opinion about it.

In comments taken from a talk show he does on YouTube, James offered his thoughts.

“How can she feel like America has her back?” James wondered. “I would be feeling like, ‘Do I even want to go back to America?’”

Given that her other option is to stay in Russia, I’m going to guess the answer to that question is yes.

James was pretty proud of this bit of political insight. So much so that it featured in a preview for a coming episode of the show.

Then what you figured would happen happened. A bunch of people, NBA gadfly and Turkish dissident Enes Kanter prime among them, attacked James for hating freedom.

“You are free to leave, buddy,” Kanter said, capturing the gist.

James was forced into the usual denial in these instances that what he said is not what he said: “My comments … wasn’t knocking our beautiful country.”

James is right. What he said isn’t anti-American. It’s actually so American it makes your teeth hurt.

It reflects a very 21st-century take on Manifest Destiny. America doesn’t want to control huge swaths of the world any more. That’s way too much responsibility. All the United States is asking is that everyone leaves it alone, while still doing exactly what it says when it says it.

That’s who America is now. The nitwit you work with who doesn’t do much of anything, but still thinks he’s in charge. The first guy talking in every town hall meeting. The one who hasn’t read the memo, but has a bunch of great ideas about how it could be improved.

Even in his follow-up, James seems to think springing Griner is a purely administrative exercise: “Long story short #BringHerHome” followed by “FreeBG.”

Washington can’t “free” anyone. Washington’s too busy trying to figure out how to grovel to Saudi Arabia without seeming to do so because average working families really need to drive to Disney World this summer.

America has spent the past 20 years alternately bombing the hell out of or giving up on the rest of the world. The only countries who still care what America thinks are the ones getting a monthly cheque. Russia isn’t one of them.

The American frontier – that’s where sports activism hits its hard limit.

Athletes are used to asking for things and then getting them. They always have been, but never more so than right now. If asking doesn’t work, then subtle threats do. On rare occasions, the nuclear option is required: ‘If you don’t do what I want, I won’t play.’

It’s worked a treat on their employers and sponsors. Even when it doesn’t (e.g. Colin Kaepernick), they can still count on the support of a certain sort of every online sports fan.

Little wonder sportsmen and women feel so emboldened, and that so many now have a long list of grievances that need constant addressing. Because it works. Often, even very often, it has resulted in an aggregate good.

It also has the less-talked-about effect of building lucrative personal brands. It’s no longer good enough to be great at your job to maximize your earning potential. You also have to show you care. A lot. About everything. All the time.

The important thing is understanding the core equation: when you demand, you get. So make demands.

In that sense, LeBron James is doing a public service here. He is teaching Americans how little they now matter outside their own borders. People are snatching up their sports stars and ignoring their orders.

James’s comments probably make things worse for Griner because they put more pressure on the White House, which one presumes is Russia’s goal here. Your ill-considered thoughts making a situation you hoped to improve more difficult – what could be more American?

As long as Griner is a headline, she has value as a prisoner. She represents American impotence in a way the most saintly kidnapped aid worker never could.

The campaign to free her goes some way to proving why the American century is over. Does anyone in the United States trust the State Department to figure this out? Of course not. How many IG followers does it have?

This is how bad it’s got – Kim Kardashian posted a FreeBrittney battle cry in between spon-con for body contouring and it still hasn’t happened.

The queasy feeling the Griner affair has created among the U.S. media is reflected in the way it’s reported. When it comes to domestic hot-button issues such as abortion rights or racial conflict, the dudgeon is high and constant. But on Griner – a de facto political prisoner held by an enemy state – it’s mostly straight-ahead news reporting.

On both the right and left, no one wants to call too much attention to how little influence Washington now has. U.S. media elites sense on some level transcending partisanship that none of this is good for any of them.

But that won’t stop Mr. and Ms. America from blundering around like spoiled teenagers who’ve just left home and got their first real job. What? I don’t get to set the rules any more? Why wasn’t I consulted about this?