Columns, Opinions

Simshauser ’20: The NBA’s hollow commitment to justice

By
Opinions Editor
Tuesday, October 22, 2019

During Adam Silver’s tenure as commissioner, the National Basketball Association has enjoyed the distinction of being the most socially aware major sports league. The NBA was dubbed “the wokest professional sports league” by the New York Times in 2018. Silver, for his part, is aware of the benefits associated with this branding: “I didn’t know we were given that designation,” he said to the Times, “but I understand the sentiment and we’re proud of that.” It’s a designation that the league has earned. Silver’s first major act as commissioner was to bar Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling for life after recordings of him making racist statements surfaced in 2014. Unlike other sports leagues, the NBA encourages its highest-profile players to take stands on social issues. While Colin Kaepernick has been de facto banned from the NFL for protesting police brutality, NBA players and teams are given license to support the Black Lives Matter movement — even as openly as wearing shirts that honor victims of police violence during on-court warmups. To Silver, freedom of expression is woven into the fabric of the league. “It’s part of being an NBA player,” he said in a 2018 interview with CNN — “(that) sense of an obligation, social responsibility, a desire to speak up directly about issues that are important.”

But the league’s obeisance to the Chinese government over the past weeks suggests a hard limit to their espoused ideals of social activism. The conflict between the NBA and the Chinese Communist Party began on Oct. 4 when Daryl Morey, General Manager of the Houston Rockets, posted a tweet that said “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.” Outrage in China was swift and unanimous. Morey was lambasted on Chinese Central Television (an organ of the CCP), and Chinese fans called for a boycott of the NBA. Within hours of the since-deleted tweet, the NBA released a statement that distanced itself from Morey and apologized for his tweet. Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta emphasized that “Morey does not speak for the Houston Rockets.”  And Morey eventually sent out a series of tweets walking back his original endorsement of the Hong Kong protesters.

The NBA’s response to China shows the moral emptiness of corporate displays of “wokeness.” Ultimately, social ideals are subordinated to profits. Over 500 million people watched an NBA game in China last year, and the league’s operations there have been valued at over $4 billion. The Chinese government has a well-documented history of banning corporations for seemingly minute offenses — often coercing apologies from the companies as a result — and is fully capable of restricting all NBA broadcasts from entering the country. Given these incentives, it’s hardly surprising that the NBA sought to appease the CCP. But the enduring partnership between the NBA and China should dispel any notions that the league is indeed the rare corporation to also genuinely champion social progress.

Silver is often praised, deservedly, for his willingness to leverage the NBA’s power in order to promote social causes. He pulled the NBA All-Star Game from Charlotte in 2017 because of the state’s anti-transgender bathroom bill — allowing the city to play host in 2019 only after the bill had been repealed. But actions like these start to ring hollow when one learns that the NBA still operates a training center in Xinjiang province, site of one of the world’s largest humanitarian crises. Such is the hypocrisy of “woke” politics. Are the moral stakes of gender-neutral bathrooms really higher than the internment of over one million Uighurs? This sort of logic rewards corporations for performative gestures of social progressivism and fails to punish them for doing nothing to actually uphold the values that underpin these movements.

Even more disappointing than the NBA’s desertion of Morey was the sight of its best player joining in on the criticism. After playing a preseason exhibition game in Shanghai last week, LeBron James issued a statement upon returning stateside. “I believe (Morey) wasn’t educated on the situation at hand,” James said. “So many people could have been harmed, not only financially, but physically, emotionally, spiritually.” James has been a vanguard for player activism throughout the decade: he has criticized President Trump; he has spoken about racial injustice in America; he stood alongside Gavin Newsom in September when the California governor signed a bill that would allow college athletes to be paid.

But James is also a Nike athlete. And while activist athletes are popular, albeit controversial, domestically — Kaepernick starred in a recent Nike ad campaign, for example — the Chinese government would surely pull Nike products from shelves if one of its athletes spoke in favor of the Hong Kong protestors. Nike brought in over $6.2 billion in revenue from China last year. An athlete like James also risks losing jersey and signature shoe sales by speaking out. And so James gives a statement that would pass Chinese censors. He ensures a placid consumer base in China for his Nike products. He also keeps open the possibility that movies made by his media company, Springhill Entertainment, may pass government censors and be shown in China.

James, along with many other players and coaches, will certainly continue to speak out on social injustices throughout the season — gun violence, Trump, racial injustice, etc. He will be right to do so. And Silver will be praised for allowing them to use their platform to advance what are likely to be admirable social causes. But the Morey episode — and the NBA’s involvement with China more broadly — shows the material calculation underpinning supposed “wokeness.” A league that rightly condemns Trump’s travel ban as going “against the fundamental values of (the) NBA”  simultaneously does business  — and goes to great lengths to ensure that they can continue to do business — with a country that is systematically tracking and detaining Uighur residents in concentration camps. The NBA’s continued courtship of China shows that its espoused social progressivism, like any other corporate branding strategy, is judged by its profitability.  The NBA advertises its players’ activism and social awareness for its American viewers, who happen to be the most left-leaning of all the major sports fan bases. The league even voices support for Enes Kanter, who has vocally opposed rising authoritarianism in his native Turkey. But when there are billions of potential NBA fans living under an authoritarian government, the league suddenly falls silent.

Derek Simshauser ’20 really hopes he isn’t banned from visiting China. He can be reached at derek_simshauser@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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