By Brandi Mitchell
Web Content Contributor
It is always an intriguing arena when sports and politics collide. In the past few years, we’ve seen sports stars use their platform to champion social justice issues, call out police brutality, combat racism, speak up for human rights and weigh in on controversial political topics from abortion to LGBTQ rights and gender equality.
Even though Laura Ingraham famously told Lebron James to “shut up and dribble,” stars of the NBA, MLB, and NFL among other major sports leagues have taken to social media or the microphone to exercise their right of free speech.
It has been beautiful, powerful and effective at times, and perhaps misguided and polarizing at others, but it has ushered major league sports into an age where politics and “play ball” are not mutually exclusive.
And yet, in the past two weeks, a hush has fallen on the crowd and the court. ESPN and specifically the NBA have suddenly put their hands up and backed far away from the human rights issues so common in their dialogue in the past. The promulgation of the priority of freedom of speech has gone suspiciously quiet.
Coming from an organization who boasts players with a long record of criticisms against the United States and the presidential administration among other targets, it seems that enlightened activism has stopped where a threat to their salary has started.
Last week, Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted his support of Hong Kong protesters right after his team touched down in Asia before a multi-game series they were set to play in China: “Fight for freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.”
These seemingly innocuous seven words in support of democracy and those protesting communism and human rights abuse would appear right in line with the NBA’s values of being the “wokest” major league sports organization. Adam Silver, the NBA commissioner, even said himself that “political speech” is players’ “absolute right within the league.”
Yet, minutes later, Morey was pressured to remove the tweet and then further pressured to apologize for his pro-democracy statement. The reason? Financial fall-out.
The NBA industry in China is worth over 4 billion dollars, and almost immediately following the tweet, China’s communist propaganda machine went into full effect, pulling the Rocket’s games from the CCTV (a state-run Chinese television network) and dropping million dollar endorsements for several NBA players.
The Global Times, a government propaganda newspaper, had this message for business owners in the West: “The biggest lesson which can be drawn from the matter is that entities that value commercial interests must make their members speak cautiously. Global brands better stay away from politics.”
Instead of recognizing this message for what it was and calling out its oppressive, anti-freedom of speech gag rule against businesses potentially triumphing individual liberty, the NBA capitulated.
The NBA’s official apology was disseminated via the Chinese version of Twitter, Sina Weibo, saying “We are extremely disappointed in the inappropriate comment by the general manager of the Houston Rockets, [Mr. Morey] undoubtedly seriously hurt the feelings of Chinese basketball fans.”
An appalling statement for a myriad of reasons, least of which because Twitter is actually banned in China, so what Chinese basketball fans were even able to see it in order to be offended? None of them, because they were too busy being kept in the dark by a government that represses freedom of information, speech, and expression.
But it didn’t stop there. The NBA practically outdid itself attempting to backpedal from Morey’s pro-democracy stance and propitiate by renouncing any pro-Hong Kong sentiments– reacting as if supporting protesters trying to keep the freedoms we in America so readily enjoy is a capital transgression.
Tilman Fertitta, owner of the Houston Rockets, quickly responded to distance the Rocket’s from Morey’s statement: “Listen…@dmorey does not speak for the @HoustonRockets. Our presence in Tokyo is all about the promotion of the @NBA internationally and we are not a political organization.”
When Lebron James took to the microphone to address the comments, Chinese propaganda experts could be heard clapping for him all the way from Asia. James referred to Morey’s tweets as “misinformed” and “not educated.”
He went on to say that, “at times, there are ramifications for the negative that can happen when you’re not thinking about others and you’re only thinking about yourself.”
Interesting that Morey is being portrayed as thinking of himself as James effectively becomes a mouthpiece of propaganda in order to keep his wallet as extraordinarily large as he has enjoyed thus far.
It seems James has no issue speaking out against injustice when it has no cost to him whatsoever; when the effort is only as strenuous as a 140 character tweet from the comfort of his mansion.
The very right he has utilized to express his own dismay at issues within the United States is the right that those protesting in Hong Kong are literally dying for, and yet when it is their lives on the line, James finds himself a puppet of a regime waging a silent war against Western freedom without even having to lift a finger.
The NBA has climbed into bed with a government that is famous for its oppressive and threatening restriction of freedoms on its people including Muslim re-education camps, arrant anti-freedom of speech sentiment, severe restrictions on the free exercise and practice of religion, and the smothering of women’s voices who step forward and speak out against sexual violence.
This country boasts a government that controls mass media, the internet and academia; a government that systematically abuses religious minorities, torturing and imprisoning them for attempting to practice their faith.
These are just a fraction of human rights abuses that China is proven to have committed and be committing. The level of security and surveillance within its borders leaves other crimes perpetrated against its citizens as likely speculation.
And here we have the NBA, famous for its “woke capitalism,” brought to its knees rather happily at the threat that its profit margins could be impacted by standing for the freedom it has claimed to have concern for in the past.
The alarming and overwhelming backlash against Morey for a pro-democracy, pro-human rights sentiment was a free advertisement for Chinese propaganda. One that came from the mouths of players only granted the platform they have to speak because of the freedom they enjoy that the Hong Kong protesters are terrified to lose.
When Rockets star James Harden said, “We apologize. You know, we love China” it simply couldn’t have been any more clear.
When these players quickly and unequivocally expressed explicit love and support for a government said by Democratic candidate Pete Buttigeig to be “using technology for the perfection of dictatorship,” it becomes evident that perhaps it was never about justice at all.
At the end of the day, it’s about money and popularity. James Harden, the NBA, ESPN, and every other organization that failed to call this past week’s events out for what they were, have sold out to China and its pro-communism agenda.
It’s deplorable, it’s disgusting and it’s heartbreaking. Ironically, when Morey said “freedom isn’t free” in his initial tweet, he had no idea how acutely he was highlighting the cost that NBA stars would have to pay to stand on the side of freedom.
Tragically, it became clear that no one was willing to pay. The cost of freedom was purely monetary, no player’s lives were on the line, just a dent in their enormous bank accounts, and not one of them was willing to pay.
It has often been said that when one remains silent, they take the side of the oppressor. The NBA didn’t just remain silent, it stared straight into the face of corruption and said, “We love China”.
Democracy, justice and freedom will only stand strong in the face of its powerful and lucrative foes when we recognize our burden to speak for the silenced, suppressed and subjugated.
The NBA revealed itself to be weaker than the strength needed to carry this burden; they weren’t the first, and they won’t be the last. But when western businesses look at their bottom line, and then look at the world and say, in effect, “human rights abuse can’t be worth that much” know that it is our job to call it for what it is.
The professional sports league dubbed the “wokest” by their peers has surrendered this title, and time will tell who decides to catch the rebound. It is a clear lesson that “wokeness” is worth far less when it yields at the very moment it is needed. This past week, it was needed badly on the court. And yet everyone just shut up and dribbled.
Featured image by Brandi Mitchell.