After years of taking heat for voicing their opinions on political and social issues, NBA players and coaches have found themselves this week being attacked for the exact opposite. With a cold war brewing between the NBA and China over a tweet made, and subsequently deleted, by Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey in support of anti-government protestors in Hong Kong, the league’s biggest names have mostly responded with a very loud silence. That in and itself has drawn criticism in the US, even while it has seemingly done nothing to appease China itself. Indeed, the Rockets are facing a boycott in China, and sponsorships and broadcasting deals for the whole league are under threat.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver has attempted to placate everybody by expressing regret for Morey’s statements while reaffirming his employees’ rights to free speech. Unfortunately, he has been trying to find middle ground unaware that there is none. As a result, voices from both the left and right in the US have criticized him and the league for their attempts to apologize to a totalitarian government rather than risking profits in a huge market. Inevitably, the media has turned its attention to the “global ambassadors” of the game, the players themselves.
Over the last decade, NBA players have gained a reputation for speaking out on issues in the US, ranging from gun violence to the abuses of the Trump administration. It has not gone unnoticed that, for the most part, they have been quiet about the entire situation in Hong Kong, where law enforcement has used live ammunition on civilians. OK, not every player has been quiet: Rockets star James Harden went out of his way to apologize to China. “You know, we love China. We love playing there,” he said on Monday. This overture did not move the country to stop the boycott of his team. Days later, workers began painting over murals depicting the Rockets, as if China were trying to physically erase the once-beloved team (the country’s greatest player, Yao Ming, was a star for years in Houston) from its cultural memory.
There have been others who have made statements that were slightly less humiliating. The Portland Trail Blazers’ CJ McCollum, who has a sneaker deal with the Chinese brand Li-Ning, said, “it’s unfortunate that things have gotten to this point, but hopefully, we can get through it.” The Golden State Warriors’ Steph Curry made a comment that was closer to a no comment. “I don’t know that history well enough to kind of speak on it to form an opinion yet,” Curry said, “so that’s kind of where I’m at with this situation … I’m staying tuned like everybody else.”
To a point, that’s entirely fair. The issues that NBA players have been vocal about have tended to be ones that directly affect them and their communities. When LeBron James and other NBA stars speak out about the realities of police brutality and gun violence in African American communities, it’s because they are subjects that they know intimately. We can’t expect them to intimately know the details of say, the Fugitive Offenders bill and the long-standing grievances between Hong Kong and mainland China (although the grim details of the extent of China’s crackdown on protestors have been widely reported).
This explanation only goes so far, however. Players don’t have to know anything about the protests in Hong Kong to know that what China’s disproportionate response to Morey’s tweet is a clear attempt to silence not just their bosses but themselves. The fact that players seem afraid to speak up about the issue is worrisome enough that it somehow has made temporary allies of figures on both sides of the political spectrum. Republican senator Ted Cruz and Democratic representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez were among politicians who co-signed a letter to Silver expressing their disappointment in the matter.
“NBA players have a rich history of speaking out on sensitive topics of social justice and human rights inside the United States,” the letter states, “and the NBA takes pride in defending their right to do so. Yet while it is easy to defend freedom of speech when it costs you nothing, equivocating when profits are at stake is a betrayal of fundamental American values.”
In this one statement, you can see exactly why the NBA’s attempt to stay neutral has united left and the right. For those on the left (particularly those whom Slate describes as “the radical sports leftists”), it represents a clear-cut example of a corporation putting people over profits by compromising with an authoritarian country with an ongoing history of human rights violations. For those on the right – including those who might otherwise look away at a large corporation doing business with a totalitarian government – Communist China is a uniquely un-American entity, a convenient boogieman representing the dangers of leftism. For those whose opinions solely come from Fox News, those who find anybody to the left of, say, Mitt Romney indistinguishable from a Maoist firebrand, it becomes easy to use this incident to tar the predominantly liberal voices within the NBA.
This, of course, is where President Trump comes into the picture. The head coaches of the Warriors and San Antonio Spurs, Steve Kerr and Gregg Popovich, have been vocal critics of Trump since he took office. When Kerr declined to comment on the situation between China and the US and Popovich responded to questions by praising Silver’s handling of the matter, Trump spared no time in hitting back at the two figures, who have been openly critical of his presidency.
“He was shaking, ‘Oh, I don’t know,’” Trump said of Kerr, “he didn’t know how to answer the question, and yet he’ll talk about the United States very badly.” Trump, somewhat more respectfully, pointed out that Popovich didn’t “want to say anything bad” about China.
For those who have celebrated Kerr and Popovich for their outspokenness in the past, the worst part about Trump’s comments was that they weren’t wrong. When it comes to China, players and coaches alike appear to be genuinely afraid to say anything that could upset the situation any further. At best, this position leaves them open to accusations of hypocrisy. At worst, it’s evidence that China’s reaction to Morey’s tweet have already served their purpose in creating a chilling effect throughout the NBA. If that’s the case, the league has already lost this conflict.