Shut Up and Let Me Dribble
How the NBA’s Response to its Hong Kong Scandal Revealed the True Colours of its Political Activism
By: Dima Sochnyev
During a preseason Houston Rockets media conference earlier this October, CNN anchor Christina Macfarlane asked Russell Westbrook and James Harden one final question. It concerned a scandal sparked by a recent tweet in support of Hong Kong protestors by the Rockets’ General Manager, Daryl Morey. She calmly inquired whether or not Westbrook and Harden, two major stars with wide social podiums, now “felt differently about speaking out” when it came to politics or social issues in the future.
Before the visibly uncomfortable pair could answer, a team staff member interrupted and shut the question down, labelling it illegitimate and taking away her microphone. Yet Macfarlane had carefully worded the question to avoid the controversial Hong Kong subject. Instead, she opted to test the kind of progressive activism the NBA and its players have championed among sports leagues in recent years.
With the team refusing to allow its players to have an opinion on having opinions, Macfarlane had her answer after all.
Daryl Morey’s attempt at political activism was not out of the ordinary for a league that has, until now, pushed the envelope in taking progressive stances. In 2014, players across the league donned “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirts during warmups in remembrance of Eric Garner, an African-American choked to death while being arrested. In 2016, the NBA removed its All-Star weekend from host city Charlotte after North Carolina state legislature passed and stood by HB2, a discriminatory and anti-LGBTQ law that has since been repealed.
And as recently as 2019, players have battled with President Donald Trump and other political figures over the social activism of former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who continues to enjoy support around the league. (As a side note, no player ever kneeled under Adam Silver. "It's been a rule as long as I've been involved with the league, and my expectation is that our players will continue to stand for the anthem," he said in 2017.)
Thus, in its annual preseason games in China, the NBA had an opportunity to make a similar stand in a controversy involving a country with a political freedom and human rights record that is dubious at best. After having rebuked Fox News’ Laura Ingraham's ignorant “Shut up and dribble” remark last year and riding the largest athlete sponsorship ever, LeBron James could have been that stand’s talisman. Yet how did the most progressive league in major American sports and its biggest star fumble the ball in its worst public relations scandal since Tim Donaghy? ( The referee gambling scandal which rattled the league in the early 2000s.)
Unlike his fellow league members, Morey has since publicly apologized—or perhaps been forced to apologize—and deleted his controversial “Fight for Freedom, Stand with Hong Kong,” tweet.
“I was merely voicing one thought, based on one interpretation, of one complicated event,” Morey tweeted.
Thankfully, his apology did not backtrack his own views on the subject, one that is indeed complicated and with much at stake. But Morey is a smart man; he is an MIT alumnus and a trailblazer for an analytics movement that has placed him firmly in the elite tier of league GMs. There is little doubt that Morey is capable of researching and forming an educated opinion and understood the consequences of such a tweet, especially as the GM of a Rockets team beloved by Chinese fans ever since Yao Ming wore their jersey for nine years.
Now the NBA, as an entertainment business, isn’t obligated to take on a principled stance on Hong Kong. However, they must defend, in light of American values and their own statements on their “league values”, the right of any league executive or player to take a stance. Morey exercised his free speech in defense of democratic values abroad not unlike Steve Kerr and LeBron James did at home. Kerr recently criticized the indignity of the current US administration yet had remained mum about China’s, perhaps cognizant of the consequences that come with criticizing the government in the former versus the latter.
LeBron James, for his part, went even further by directly attacking Morey, accusing him of being uneducated about the consequences of voicing his opinion. It was a direct attack on Morey’s right to free speech which came shortly after news circulated that a high-level player had pressured Commissioner Adam Silver into punishing Morey. Silver pushed back amidst the fallout, expressing in a statement that, “the values of the league support individuals’ educating themselves and sharing their views on matter important to them.” Nonetheless, the shutdown of Macfarlane and leaguewide silence suggest otherwise.
James, a typically outspoken critic of the economic and social issues affecting African-American communities back home, seems to disagree. To see Morey have virtually no public supporters is already upsetting, albeit understandable given the financial implications, but to see the face of the league denounce Morey’s decision to speak up is worrying.
Despite their service against police brutality and oppression of minorities at home, James and the NBA hardly care for police brutality in Hong Kong or the oppression of mostly student protestors because doing so entails losing lots of money.
Some players, former and current, have stood up. Bogut, who currently plays in the Australian league, criticized the NBA’s spineless response. “Everyone is for the ‘cause’,” he tweeted on October 15th, “until the ‘cause’ costs them $$$$$...”
Enes Kanter, whose history of criticizing Turkish President Erdogan led him to be issued a device by the FBI in case of life-threatening emergencies, wasted no time in castigating James. He tweeted a quote by Martin Luther King Jr. that had been used by James a few years ago in support of Kaepernick. “Our lives begin to end,” Kanter repeated, “the day we become silent about things that matter.”
“We do not believe,” a league statement said back in 2016, “we can successfully host our All-Star festivities in Charlotte in the climate created by HB2.” However, is the league implying that the current climate, where speech is drastically limited to avoid Chinese corporate sanctions, is tolerable? Why is it that as soon as legitimate financial consequences to activism appear, beyond a couple dozen white guys burning old apparel, that the league hides its tail?
In that case, the NBA should drop its social activism and function as a business first and foremost. It isn’t necessarily bad: the NBA as a league is lauded for its progressive agenda because it is unexpected. However, legitimate social activism requires a full commitment to the values at hand. If its officials and players protest in favour of oppressed groups and against certain actions because of universally shared values, then the scope of the oppressed groups who benefit should be universal as well.
Activism, like the values it supports, demands sacrifices. Former Denver Nuggets guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf sacrificed the prime of his career and his own personal security to stand up for his principles.
“It’s priceless to know that I can go to sleep knowing that I stood to my principles,” Abdul-Rauf told The Undefeated in 2016. “Whether I go broke, whether they take my life, whatever it is, I stood on principles. To me, that is worth more than wealth and fame.”
There will likely be no sacrifices this time around. For the moment, James and the NBA are trying to wait for the public backlash to blow over eventually. When James, whose “More Than An Athlete” hoodies launched earlier this year, explained why he would no longer comment on the subject, he simply said, “we’re not politicians.”
The scandal is troublesome beyond the league.
It is concerning when a state suppresses its own citizens’ voices; it is frightening when it begins to suppress foreign citizens.
To Hong Kong protestors, who often wave star-spangled banners in support of what they view as fundamentally American democratic values, the NBA’s handling is nothing less than a betrayal. They have already started burning James’ Laker jerseys, but their tiny consumer market size makes it unlikely that it will have any impact.
In an earlier Bench article we claimed that the future of basketball lies in Asia. The legitimacy of the NBA’s political activism, however, died there.
Dima Sochnyev is a columnist at The Bench.