As violence worsens (seemingly every day) in Hong Kong, finding answers becomes more abysmal for the NBA.
Early into this year's preseason, Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey tweeted out support for protesters in Hong Kong. Following the tweet — which was promptly deleted — the Chinese government, as well as several multinational corporations, responded with swift public retaliation. Two preseason games scheduled to play in China were pulled from the air by Chinese state broadcasting.
Nike, a company known for stepping out on social issues, pulled all Houston Rockets merchandise from their Chinese stores. A week after the tweet, league superstar LeBron James criticized Morey live on air for stirring controversy and costing the league business.
Over the next few weeks, NBA fans would regularly be escorted out of venues for exercising displays of solidarity with Hong Kong. Their signs carried the messages, "Google Uyghurs" or "Stand with Hong Kong." But no one could have predicted where we’d be today. An American institution, the National Basketball Association, has seemingly kowtowed (for reasons that are unclear) to an authoritarian government bent on the violent suppression of the ideals upon which this country was founded.
Hong Kong, a former British colony, has retained its own legal system and judiciary, and its citizens enjoy liberties such as the right to peaceful assembly and free speech. Nevertheless, over the past several months, civil unrest has enveloped the city of Hong Kong. Demonstrators took to the streets in protest of a bill that would allow local authorities to extradite fugitives wanted by the Chinese government back to mainland China. Hong Kongers fear that this would undermine the region's political autonomy and erode the civil liberties they've enjoyed for decades as part of the "one country, two systems" arrangement.
And these protests have not disbanded or gone away. In fact, they’ve only grown with every increase in pressure from the Chinese government.
Of course, professional athletes should be free to speak on pressing social issues in their capacity as private citizens. Private corporations that have benefited from American rule of law have the right, as well, to respond or not to the events in Hong Kong. But it certainly appears that China has impermissibly imported their authoritarian speech restrictions to U.S. shores by leveraging multinational corporations with threats of censorship. In doing so, they have seemingly curbed any dissent by prominent athletes, coaches, and managers in the NBA. Admittedly, as a private, non-government organization, the NBA is not subject to the restraints imposed by the First Amendment and thus may prevent their agents from speaking out on certain topics. However, this does not mean they are free from criticism or the disdain of the American people for capitulating to foreign governments who seek to quash dissent.
The NBA and Nike are both companies that have historically found marketing success through social causes. However, any goodwill they may have built up over the years means nothing if they abandon their purported commitment to social justice as soon as bottom lines are threatened. It is easy to speak when it costs nothing, but that is not the essence of free expression. Speech is most valuable when it causes us to examine the issues that make us uncomfortable; the issues that stir up latent emotions and challenge established status quos.
America’s freedom of speech is not a platitude. It is a bulwark against tyranny and the first line of defense when fundamental human rights are threatened.
The original Boston Tea Party, Frederick Douglas, and Martin Luther King all come to mind. It is our right to free speech that separates us from authoritarian regimes like China, where citizens must think twice before criticizing their government for fear of retaliation.
Dissent is as American as apple pie and basketball. It is a tradition that will not bend the knee to authoritarian regimes. The NBA, Nike and LeBron James forget this at their peril.
Dr. Robert McClure provides expert perspective on current issues facing our nation and his home state of Florida, the third-largest state in the nation and a policy bellwether for the country. Recently named one of the Most Influential People in Florida Politics, Dr. McClure serves as the President and CEO of The James Madison Institute, Florida’s premier free-market think tank. He is a frequent commentator on television and talk radio programs and has lectured nationally on diverse policy issues. Dr. McClure has been published numerous times at both the state and national level on topics including property rights, tax policy, health care, and education reform. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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