On activism in sports, moral-licensing, and the NBA’s ongoing failure to speak clearly on human rights abuses in China.

Utah Jazz forward Rudy Gobert in 2019 (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

On September 17, 2020, the Los Angeles Lakers captured their seventeenth National Championship in franchise history, led by Finals MVP LeBron James. The event marked the end of a season that will go down in history as perhaps one of the strangest to date, and its completion without a single positive coronavirus test certainly makes it one of the most impressive. Aside from the NBA being the one of the first substantial sectors of the American economy to fully shut down operations as the coronavirus arrived on our shores, the uniqueness of the 2020 season was marked by the unapologetic and fully immersive embrace of social justice activism by the league and many of its star players, upon restarting in July. Activist slogans such as “Black Lives Matter” were displayed on jerseys, the court, and in promotional media. Players were free to select from a number of league-approved political statements to display on their jerseys, and kneeling during the National Anthem was such a universal act that Magic and Heat forwards Jonathan Isaac and Meyers Leonard turned heads as the only players to defiantly stand for it in pregame ceremonies. Many have expressed annoyance with the NBA’s decision to mix politics with basketball, while some others have become interested in the league specifically due to the league’s projected image as a progressive force for good. Whether athletes and sports leagues should stay apolitical to help preserve sports arenas as last bastions of common interest and togetherness in a rapidly dividing nation should be up for debate, but as complicated and worthwhile as that debate may be, it is not the one worth having right now. The NBA’s over-the-top embrace of social justice activism as a brand is scarcely more than a last-ditch effort to cover up what is an ongoing moral failure. Executives and star-activists like LeBron James deserve our disdain, not our praise, for refusing to do what’s right, while they attempt to save face and capitalize on an image of righteousness.

The colossal ethical failure first began in October of 2019, when Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey sent out a tweet which read, “Fight for freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.” Morey said this in support of protestors in Hong Kong generally, but he did so in specific response to new anti-mask legislation (unrelated to Covid-19), which would threaten the safety and anonymity of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. In February of that year, members of the Hong Kong government had proposed a new extradition bill, which threatened the region’s judicial independence from mainland China, a country that is controlled by an authoritarian regime and punishes political dissidents. That specific legislation was rescinded, but uninvestigated incidences of police brutality against the protestors, as well as continued creep by Beijing over internal affairs in Hong Kong, kept the demonstrations alive. Morey’s tweet did not go unnoticed by authorities in China. The Chinese Basketball Association suspended their relationship with the Rockets, the Chinese consulate in Houston issued a statement of disapproval, Rockets items were removed from the stores of online retailers in China, the NBA was dropped from streaming services, they loss Chinese sponsors, and massive television contracts between China and the NBA were threatened with elimination. The NBA estimates the losses from the tweet amounted to about $400 million. The fallout from this incident shed light on an unstated, but unsettling reality, which is the complex nature of the business relationship between the NBA and the Chinese Communist Party.

Among American professional sports leagues, the NBA has been a trailblazer in expanding its market nationwide. Initiated by the late former commissioner, David Stern, the NBA has expanded east in recent decades, beginning by shipping VHS tapes to Chinese state media in the 1980’s, then playing exhibition games in China, and eventually signing superstar, Yao Ming. The Chinese market embraced the NBA and everyone associated reaped the financial benefits. However, Morey’s tweet may have been the first incident to call into question the ethics of such a relationship. Perhaps initially accompanied by the goodwill intention of breaking down cultural boundaries and bringing people from across the world together under the umbrella of their love of basketball, due to the profitable nature of the relationship, the NBA has now become dependent upon China for a large portion of its revenue. To state more bluntly, a multi-billion dollar American industry is now dependent upon the approval from the Chinese Communist Party for its financial success. What happens when an American choosing to exercise his right to free speech in America can end up costing an American company hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars? That company begins to adopt a lot of the values of the regime upon which it is financially dependent.

Morey’s unilateral decision to chime in on the issues of China annoyed many involved, to say the least. If he had not said anything, the NBA could have stayed silent and apolitical as they reaped the rewards of doing business in China. Inconveniently, Morey’s tweet and the Chinese response to it meant that the NBA would then be forced to take a side. League commissioner Adam Silver did his best to appease the Chinese Communist Party and pay lip service to American values by speaking support for Morey’s right to free speech, and making clear that his words did not reflect the views of the league itself. Outspoken coach of the Golden State Warriors, Steve Kerr, was vague and disinterested in weighing in on the matter as it unfolded. Since, he has said he regretted how he handled it, but has not gone much further than that. LeBron James called the whole thing a “delicate situation,” and insisted Morey’s tweet was “misinformed.” He tweeted, “My team and this league just went through a difficult week. I think people need to understand what a tweet or statement can do to others. And I believe nobody stopped and considered what would happen. Could have waited a week to send it.” Unambiguously, his concern was for the financial interests of those associated with the NBA, rather than standing for what is right. In the months since, James has become one of the league’s most outspoken activists, but meanwhile has scarcely said another word on issues relevant to China.

It may seem unfair to criticize an activist’s silence on one issue, while they focus their attention on another. To be clear, no one can or should be an activist on all causes. There is simply too much happening in the world at any one time, and it would make sense to focus energy in order to make a tangible difference, while activists passionate about other causes do the work that motivates them. However, the NBA’s financial relationship with China is exactly why they must not remain silent on issues that pertain to it, because that is where they can do the most good on the most pressing and unambiguous human rights abuses in the world that are happening right now, and they have benefited directly from the authoritarian government. In the months since the Morey tweet, more information about the Chinese government’s ongoing genocide of the Uighur Muslims has come to light and has started to reach popular consciousness. Still, relatively very few people are aware that any such atrocities are currently ongoing. Much of the coverage has taken place in paywall-protected articles in elitist magazines and newspapers. It is so tragically ignored by our politicians in the west, that British radio host and activist, Maajid Nawaz, undertook a hunger strike just to get Parliament in the United Kingdom to acknowledge it. United States Senator from Missouri, Josh Hawley, has become a broken record on issues regarding China, and has been vocal in his disapproval of the NBA, but the league is so caught up financially with China that even journalists who are supposed to cover the NBA have disdain for the Senator for his incessant harping. In response to Hawley, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, a journalist who is supposed to be critical and tough on the subjects he covers, responded to the Senator with an email that simply read, “Fuck you.” (He was briefly suspended by ESPN for doing so.)

What is particularly alarming about the genocide happening in China right now is how one’s response to it has become almost as partisan and predictable as one’s position on climate change or gun control. Specifically in regard to trade, but creeping into other areas, Senator Hawley and President Trump have spoken ad nauseam about their distrust and dissatisfaction with China. Predictably, those on the left who are aware seem to either deflect or just not care about the human rights abuses in a sort of ad hominem Pavlovian response to the Republicans’ concern. On top of that, the fact that many see the NBA as the “good guys” on their side (they care about progressive causes, no less) prevents some from taking these inexcusable moral shortcomings seriously. This is the danger of partisanship, and shows the importance of role models in institutions. We begin to make excuses for our side, while focusing relentless criticism at the moral shortcomings of the other side, and we tend mainly to care about what the self-appointed moral leaders of our party care about. Genocide should not be a partisan issue. It’s life and death for millions of people. Speaking out about the Uighurs doesn’t make one a Republican any more than speaking out about climate change should make one a Democrat, but of course nowadays we let parties decide our morals and every issue is a wedge issue.

At a time when so many are complaining that they want politics “out of sports,” one might ask, isn’t it a little bit disingenuous and unfair to criticize athletes like James for not speaking out on this one particular issue? Isn’t this just the sanitized and updated version of saying “shut up and dribble” when an athlete speaks out on a political issue to which one may disagree. No, it’s not, and anyone who would say “shut up and dribble” to an athlete participating in our free and open democracy by using their voice, as any other citizen in our great country should, is an arrogant and dismissive imbecile who deserves to be ridiculed and taught a civics lesson. Criticism of activism that literally takes place on the court is valid, but a different subject altogether. Perhaps for some, there is nostalgia for the apolitical basketball heroes of a prior generation. Everyone who watched The Last Dance docuseries, can recall that Michael Jordan disappointed fans for refusing to use his voice in such a way. The difference is that Jordan was criticized for not speaking out to support a candidate in an American election. Fans assumed that Jordan would support their chosen candidate and therefore gave him grief for it. If he had come out in support of the wrong candidate in that North Carolina Senate race, he would have been criticized for using his voice. Critics didn’t just want Jordan to be politically active; they wanted him to be politically useful. James has decided that he will use his voice as he sees appropriate, which is commendable. He has accomplished great things, but should he be lauded as a hero?

Unfortunately, it seems like America’s favorite activists-athletes choose to only make their voices heard if it stands to benefit them, personally. It’s one of the unideal and unspoken ironies of modern philanthropy. Billionaires and multi-millionaires can build their brands and influence as thoughtful, caring, selfless members of society while only parting with a tiny fraction of their income to do so. It may be better than doing nothing, and we may appreciate them for it, but it’s a great return on investment. There are exceptions in sports, of course. Enes Kanter of the Boston Celtics has sacrificed an enormous amount in order to speak openly and honestly about his views on Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the president of his home country, Turkey. Enes Kanter, however, is not LeBron James. Kanter is an extremely effective role player who comes off the bench, and has floated from team to team since joining the NBA. LeBron James has over 73 million followers on Instagram. A single post of his can reach more people than if every news station in America broadcast the same thing at the same time. His voice and how he chooses to use it matter. James, the NBA, and other superstar athletes have profited off of their relationship with the authoritarian Chinese regime to such an exorbitant degree, that they should be obligated to speak up when their spoken ideals, and the actors they do business with, are so diametrically opposed.

Moreover, if James’ main reason for not speaking out against China’s human rights abuses and ongoing genocide is out of concern for the lower level jobs in the NBA that could be threatened by a lack of revenue coming in from China, it falls short of a valid excuse for a few reasons. If jobs would be lost, you know who could help cushion the fall for these employees who are not raking in $37 Million per year? Billionaire owners and multi-millionaire superstar athletes could step in. And if it is about the jobs that might be thrown into jeopardy, should one player speak out about concentration camps, forced sterilizations, state kidnappings, and slavery, then we really need to take a good hard look at the troubled history of this country and assess the arguments made excusing the worst human right’s abuses back then, when it was southern plantation owners and their staffs who sought to lose out if the public grew a conscience.

It may seem harsh to liken James’ silence on China to the defenders of American slavery, but this is indeed me giving him the benefit of the doubt. A cynical interpretation would be to assume that he does not care, or values his individual bank account over the lives of the Uighurs or the defenders of democracy in Hong Kong. In this charitable interpretation, I am willing to reach and assume that his concern indeed is for all the other jobs in the NBA, because I do believe LeBron James is a good person with influence that few if any of us would know what to do with if we were in his position, or this could just be a sort of moral-licensing in action. Moral-licensing is when one’s perception of themself as a just, caring individual (i.e. one who builds schools and registers people to vote) gives them license to get away with some actions that don’t live up to that image (i.e. make money off of slave labor camps in China), because they see the two as evening out, so to speak. We all do this to some extent, but when the stakes are so enormous, it becomes a problem.

In a recent podcast conversation, Megyn Kelly asked Dallas Mavericks owner, Mark Cuban, if he would specifically condemn the human rights abuses happening in China. Cuban responded, “I’m against all human rights abuses around the world.” At this contentious and repetitive point in the interview, Cuban became increasingly frustrated at the characterization of the question, and repeatedly refused to get specific. He would eventually only do so with the caveat that there are human rights abuses happening everywhere and that he is against them, wherever they may be. Eventually Cuban confessed, “They are a customer of ours, and guess what Megyn- I’m OK with doing business with China. You know, I wish I could solve all the world’s problems, Megyn. I’m sure you do, too, but we can’t, and so we have to pick our battles.” It is clear that Cuban and NBA owners like him are in a bind. The NBA, owners and athletes alike, are not uncaring monsters. Individually, they may all care about the human rights abuses in China, but collectively their hands are tied, due to the nature of their financial relationship with that country.

This is specifically the type of moral-reasoning that has resulted in an increasingly frustrating and dysfunctional congress in the United States. Imagine an idealistic young woman who wants to do good in the world, so much so that she decides to run for office. There are ten issues that mean a great deal to her, upon which she knows exactly where she stands. In order to do these great and selfless things, she will need to get elected. To do that, she will need to fund a competitive campaign which will require her to take contributions from donors. Imagine that the bulk of her donations come from one industry, or just a few wealthy donors, specifically. She now has an incentive to not speak ill or vote against the interests of that industry, or else lose her campaign funding and lose her seat in office. If she loses her seat, she won’t be able to accomplish all the good things that motivated her to run in the first place, so she picks her battles and adjusts her positions according to what will keep her in office. Those in the NBA see themselves as a force for good, focused on domestic issues and social justice. In order to make progress toward achieving these righteous goals, they believe they must remain silent about human rights abuses in China, or else lose some hundreds of millions of dollars, which they believe will harm the fight for social justice domestically. It’s not that they don’t care. It’s just that they have picked their battles (conveniently, they all stay rich in the meantime). This sort of logic, espoused by Cuban and members of congress, is emblematic of a toxic cycle which will never be broken until some of those in positions of power show some courage and decisively choose to break it. As righteous as the movement for social justice in America might be, it should not exist at the expense of the Uighurs in Xinjiang.

No one is perfect, but we all need to strive to be better. Continuing to make the effort to meet our actions to our ideals is uniquely American. The founding fathers of this nation helped set up the principles to guide us, while they themselves fell short of them in ways that are obvious to us today. America is exceptional because we strive to be great, not because we just are. That is why it is crucial for fans who are aware of the atrocities being committed by the Chinese Communist Party to speak up and demand attention be paid to this issue, and not let the NBA off easy. The horrific human rights abuses in China are just too big to allow complacency. Other corporations that have adopted Woke capitalism allow themselves to fall even further away from their spoken ideals than the NBA has, and while it may seem unfair to single out the NBA when teams do so much good within their communities at home, that is precisely why it’s important to press them. They might, and I believe are, reachable.

It just takes a few players to speak out and the rest of the league will follow. So far, French national, Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz has been the only player in the NBA to acknowledge the crimes against the Uighurs, and he did so in an Instagram post with a simple yet major concession, “wrong is wrong.” In March, the NBA did the right thing by shutting down all operations and putting the season schedule on pause when the first positive Covid-19 test of an NBA player was taken. It was a financially risky decision at the time, but to not pause the season would have been far riskier. As fate would have it, that first player who tested positive was the very same Jazz forward,Rudy Gobert. I hope the NBA will recognize that the situation with China is not much different and the longer the world cowers before China’s influence and refuses to speak out or act with any sort of a conscience, the worse things will get for everyone, not just the Uighurs. Let Gobert be that spark that leads to action once again. At the end of the day, a boycott will likely not have much effect, and life is only so short. If you are a fan of basketball, you will want to watch the greatest players in the world perform, but we all need to speak up until the NBA acts. I plead to you, LeBron James, Adam Silver, executives; employees; and fans of the NBA, speak up about China. Speak up for the autonomy of Hong Kong and Uighur muslims’ right to exist. It may feel like a risk, but to remain silent would be far riskier. If the NBA takes a moral stance against the unconscionable human rights abuses of its financial partner, the world will pay attention and follow suit with action once again. Only when the world pays attention can we start to act. Genocide is a non-negotiable. Demand action now.

Nothing to read here. Move along, people.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store