The NBA is a political organization when it comes to BLM, but for Hong Kong, not so much
Pope Francis met with players and officials from the National Basketball Association last week, congratulating them on their human rights activism following the murder of George Floyd. After the pandemic moved all games to Orlando, the NBA painted “Black Lives Matter” on one side of its courts. And most of the players wore social justice messages on their jerseys, including “Say their names”, “Equality” and “Enough”.
But “Fight for freedom, stand in solidarity with Hong Kong”? Not really.
That’s what new Philadelphia 76ers general manager Daryl Morey tweeted last year, while still with the Houston Rockets. This earned him harsh reprimands from the Chinese authorities as well as several NBA players, including LeBron James. Morey quickly apologized for “any offense” he may have caused to Rockets fans or his “friends in China.” Walking away from Morey, Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta tweeted that “we are NOT a political organization“.
But the NBA is a political organization, as the league’s BLM protests – and the pope’s praise – have confirmed. The real problem is that his politics have stopped at the water’s edge. If you condemn the human rights violations by the United States, the league said, you will earn a standing ovation; but if you denounce China for the same thing, we will denounce you.
And it’s also a metaphor for America’s larger mood during the days of President Donald Trump, when global concerns took precedence over national concerns. Trump made no secret of his America First philosophy, alienating other democracies and pampering dictators when it served his purposes. But Trump’s Democratic opponents have adopted their own version of America First, imagining our issues as more pressing and important than anyone else’s.
In a survey last year by the Center for American Progress, just 12 percent of Democrats said “promoting democratic rights and freedoms abroad” should be a top priority for US foreign policy. This was more than double the fraction of Republicans who agreed, but far less than the percentage of Democrats who cited job protection for American workers (30%) and protection against terrorism (29%) as major priorities.
Each nation cares more about its security and well-being than other countries. But America was founded on a universalist principle: all men (and now women) are created equal. Our credibility abroad is based on people thinking we believe those words. Caring about rights everywhere is not just the right thing to do; it is also in our interest.
To his credit, President-elect Joe Biden is committed to reviving this tradition. “America’s commitment to democratic values and human rights will be a priority,” Biden said, in an October 2 statement marking the second anniversary of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in Istanbul . “I will defend the right of activists, political dissidents and journalists around the world to speak out freely without fear of persecution and violence.
It remains to be seen whether Biden will keep that promise, especially when dealing with longtime allies like Saudi Arabia. But that is unlikely to happen unless American citizens also make global human rights a central concern. Our politicians won’t care unless we do.
And that brings us back to the NBA, which blatantly slapped Morey in the face. Chinese-backed authorities in Hong Kong have muzzled the press, assaulted protesters and jailed their leaders. These protesters are demanding the same thing as African Americans in the United States: freedom, equality and dignity. We undermine justice when we limit it to our own borders.
Let’s be clear: Like the Pope, I wholeheartedly support the NBA’s efforts to highlight police brutality, voter suppression and other forms of systemic racism in the United States. And I don’t think it’s the NBA’s job to tackle every human rights issue in the world.
But I think it’s incumbent on all of us to protect the rights of those who speak out on these issues, whether their employers like it or not. So when the next Daryl Morey tweets his support for dissidents in Hong Kong – or Russia, or Ethiopia, or Venezuela – let’s make sure we rally with him or her. Silence makes us complicit in oppression, as the Black Lives Matter protests reminded us. And as long as someone is in chains, no one is free.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author (with cartoonist Signe Wilkinson) of “Free Speech, and Why You Should Give a Damn”, which will be published in the spring by City of Light Press. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.