Sometimes, free speech isn’t free. Just ask the NBA.
Sometimes, speaking up for beliefs and speaking out against wrongs can be costly. The price can be paid in many ways — lost friends and popularity, lost business and money, lost freedom and even, in extreme circumstances, lost lives.
But that’s not supposed to happen in the U.S., where free speech is a cherished right.
In the continuing controversy about China, the NBA stood to lose a lot of money when Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets, exercised his right to free speech earlier this month.
“Fight for freedom. Stand with Hong Kong,” read Morey’s tweet, a sentiment that shouldn’t be controversial here. As the protests in Hong Kong have grown and turned violent, the struggle has become an international cause.
When Britain returned Hong Kong to China in 1997, the deal was that the former British colony would continue to have its civil liberties and democracy, even though China operates under a very different system. Lately, though, people in Hong Kong have felt a need to protect those freedoms from China’s authoritarian rule.
The Chinese government lashed out at Morey’s tweet swiftly, and NBA officials were in a similar rush to issue groveling apologies. Suddenly, the NBA could see its billion-dollar business in China — deals to broadcast and stream NBA games, shoe-sponsorship deals — in jeopardy.
Morey took down his tweet, substituting an apology. Adam Silver, the NBA commissioner, expressed support for Morey’s free speech rights but not for his backing of the protesters. Team owners and high-profile players have criticized Morey. Of course, the NBA isn’t the only U.S. business enterprise to risk compromising its values as it tries to get a chunk of the lucrative Chinese market. But the league has prided itself on taking the moral high ground, encouraging its players to speak out. NBA players have taken stands in support of Black Lives Matter and against police brutality. Players and coaches have made news for criticizing politicians, including President Donald Trump.
Has the league’s appreciation for free speech been just a marketing strategy? About three-fourths of NBA players are African Americans, and the fan base is more to the left politically than, say, NFL fans.
Why is it commendable for an NBA employee to call for social justice and human rights in the U.S. but not in China? Was it really necessary for the NBA to accept Chinese censorship in order to do business in China?
Forget arguments that sports is separate from politics.
Sports is big business and an important social force, and pro sports leagues make statements. Just last year, the NBA played a game in South Africa to honor the legacy of Nelson Mandela, including his belief that sports can help change the world.
No, free speech isn’t always free. Morey’s tweet was an exercise in free speech that has already cost his team and the league money. But the NBA’s decision that money is more important than free speech and human values has cost the league a great deal more. The NBA willingly accepted China’s suppression of free speech so it can keep doing business there.
It has sold its soul and lost its moral standing.