In February 2018, Laura Ingraham of Fox News found herself going head-to-head with NBA superstar LeBron James. After James criticized President Donald Trump, Ingraham hit back at the Los Angeles Lakers’ forward during her show, and told him to “shut up and dribble.”
The ensuing backlash resulted in adulation and support being tossed in James’ direction while Ingraham was resoundingly ridiculed. In March, former Lakers legend and Oscar-winning filmmaker Kobe Bryant found time in his Academy Award acceptance speech to take a swipe at Ingraham’s remarks. The entire NBA and sports world rallied behind James, who then released a docu-series titled “More than an Athlete” to promote himself as a champion of social justice.
No major professional sports league does more to enable and empower their players to speak on social and political issues than the National Basketball Association. While other leagues like the NFL struggled with controversies such as the anthem protests, the NBA smoothly navigated such pitfalls despite having some of the most loquacious superstars in the world.
All that changed last week.
On Oct. 4, Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey tweeted out his support of the protests in Hong Kong. In reality, this was nothing new or unusual for the NBA. Players comment all the time on social issues via Twitter or the press: LeBron James once tweeted that President Trump was a “bum” for disinviting the Golden State Warriors from the White House. James and other superstars such as Kevin Durant and Steph Curry have also publicly supported the Black Lives Matter movement and social justice warriors such as Colin Kaepernick.
There was something profoundly different about Morey’s tweet, however. It exposed something unsettling about the NBA’s social justice crusade.
Rather than sparking a Twitter mob of athletes rallying in support of his cause, Morey’s declaration of support was met with crickets — until the NBA forced Morey to backpedal his remarks, which they said insulted Beijing.
Because, of course, what company would want to insult a customer that provides a market of more than 500 million fans and a television deal worth $1.5 billion?
For the past two weeks, as teams such as the Lakers and Nets arrived for promotional exhibition games in China, the NBA went out of its way to placate Beijing rather than echo Morey’s call for solidarity with the Hong Kong protests. Even outspoken superstars such as LeBron James, Stephen Curry, James Harden, and Russell Westbrook towed the company line by dodging questions about the controversy.
Perhaps no moment of the debacle was more cringe-worthy than when Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr’s response to a question about Chinese human rights violations. A vocal critic of President Trump on Twitter and in the press, Kerr could have easily channeled a fraction of that passion towards standing with the protestors.
Instead, Kerr engaged in shameless whataboutism and deflected to gun control: “Nor has our record of human rights abuses come up, either,” Kerr said. “Things that our country needs to look at and resolve… But people in China didn’t ask me about, you know, people owning AR-15s and mowing each other down in a mall.”
There is no denying that America has an issue with gun violence. But to equate the evil acts of mentally-disturbed individuals with the world’s largest tyrannical government is idiocy in its most obvious form.
The Chinese government has engaged in the systematic suppression of free speech, forced abortions, and organ-harvesting from live human beings. The NBA should also know that, while their superstars like LeBron were warming up for an exhibition game in Shanghai, thousands of Uyghur Muslims were being rounded up by the Chinese government and sent to concentration camps.
Which made it all the more frustrating when James criticized Morey for expressing solidarity with the people of Hong Kong: “We all do have freedom of speech, but at times there are ramifications for the negative… I don’t want to get into a word or sentence feud with Daryl Morey, but I believe he wasn’t educated on the situation at hand,” James lamented.
The truth of the matter is the NBA’s crusade for social justice ends at the Great Wall of China, where the temptations of profit overcome any moral backbone the association may possess.
If you need any more evidence that the NBA has completely mishandled this situation, consider the fact that Senator Ted Cruz and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have co-signed a letter bashing the NBA for treating China with kid gloves. When the conservative Cruz and democratic-socialist Ocasio-Cortez both agree that you are doing a terrible job, it is a safe bet that you have botched the situation.
So how much does it take to make an athlete “shut up and dribble?” The answer is $1.5 billion and legions of adoring — albeit oppressed — fans.
Matt Fisher is a senior studying politics and is a reporter for The Collegian.