No, sports guys and gals, you don’t have to stick to what you’re paid for- but the NBA’s kowtowing to China shows why you should.
For at least a quarter century now- and arguably going as far back as the Nixon administration- the country that currently deems itself “the world’s only superpower” has bent over backwards for a vicious regime that has brutalized many of its people since the middle of the 20th century. (This blog post isn’t really about that, but for just a few examples, click here, here, and here.) As challenging as life may be for some Americans, none of us can comprehend what it’s like to live under a dictatorship like China, other than the ones who have had to escape from one. This is especially true for those who believe Donald J. Trump’s presidency is the worse thing imaginable. But again, this post isn’t about that- not primarily anyway.
People go to Twitter to take all kinds of stands on various issues- politics, sports, ice cream toppings. But those in the public sphere who do so often create more of a stir than intended. Such was the case with Daryl Morey, the General Manager of the Houston Rockets. With Hong Kong rising up against the Chinese regime for months now, Morey expressed support for the protesters with a seemingly simple tweet. But in today’s hyper-polarized social climate, very few things are simple, particularly with one of the NBA’s biggest international customers.
The NBA, usually lauded by the virtue signalers for speaking out “courageously” on social issues, was not silent on the issue, although they probably should have been. They took the extraordinary step of criticizing Morey for supporting the protesters. But it didn’t stop there. In fact, they were just getting started. Paying fans who held a banner that said “Free Hong Kong!” were removed from a game…in Philadelphia, no less. Is there a more pathetic symbol of what’s happening with this country, when the city that once hosted the Declaration of Independence signing doesn’t allow fans to support freedom for others? What does that say about our freedom?
Getting back to the NBA, though, the story reached a crescendo when LeBron James, who has bounced between the spectrum of sports hero and villain more times than we can count, had the nerve to criticize Morey for commenting about a subject that he (Morey) “wasn’t educated” on. That’s right- the same man who was once infamously told to “shut up and dribble” by a conservative gadfly was now doing the same thing to a highly esteemed general manager, for speaking out on a worthy cause.
Ultimately, this issue is not solely about LeBron James- or Warrior’s coach Steve Kerr, who disgracefully invoked sporadic mass shootings in America as a shield to widespread Chinese oppression. It’s about the culture of expecting athletes to be more than athletes. Starting with Babe Ruth and leading up to Michael Jordan, superstar athletes were thought to be more like real life superheroes, long before “MCU” became part of our lexicon. Partially overlapping that period has been the socially conscious athlete- or what is sometimes derisively referred to as “woke athlete”, derived from the idea that someone is awake to the problems our society is facing. This can be traced back at least to Muhammad Ali, a very controversial figure in his own time, who took on the establishment in protesting the Vietnam War, at considerable personal cost. Whatever shortcomings Ali had as a human being, this act of bravery has been lauded, at least in hindsight, as a positive example of an athlete being more than just an athlete.
Unfortunately, many poor imitations have been attempted since then. When addressing issues in today’s society, athletes and their backers (click here for the original “stick to sports” blog post) will predictably invoke Ali, in a nauseating self-congratulatory circle-jerk. We have freedom of speech in this country- Philadelphia 76ers pregame debacle notwithstanding- so it’s fine when a future Hall of Famer wants to speak his or her mind about topics beyond what their famous for. But they should not automatically expect to be congratulated for “bravery”, particularly when the endgame of what passes as “sacrifice” turns out to be signing a lucrative dollar contract with Nike, a multi-billion dollar company that has cynically and successfully turned “woke culture” into an even bigger cash cow than the one that they’ve been milking for decades.
So the next time LeBron James, Steve Kerr or anyone else want to speak out on an issue, it’s worth remembering that it’s their right to do so. It’s also worth remembering that when real sacrifice was on the line, they refused to remain silent. They took sides with the oppressors.
(Meanwhile on the court, opening night for the Lakers is on Tuesday, as they face off against the new look Clippers. And if I may exercise my free speech, by the time the circus at Staples Center gets going, aging LeBron’s off-court debacle will be the least of his worries…)