Sports

Are Critics of the NBA on China Hypocrites?

Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr answers questions during a news conference in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, May 29, 2019. (Dan Hamilton/USA Today Sports)
If in this case you don’t say that the NBA should ‘stick to sports,’ are you the villain in the story?

Last night, Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr declined to make any critical comments about the Chinese government and offered this observation about those who are objecting to the NBA’s partnership in China: “The same people who are asking me to stick to sports are also asking me to expand my horizons.”

In many cases, this is accurate. No doubt at least some people who reacted to the controversies in the sports world in years past with a general sense of “I just want to enjoy watching the game” are now angry-to-livid about the NBA’s collective obedience to the Chinese government on statements regarding Hong Kong and about any criticism of PRC policies in general.

There’s no getting around the fact that the earlier controversies often featured political and racial and even generational divides. Progressives, African Americans, and younger fans were most supportive of former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players who chose to kneel during the national anthem; conservatives, whites, and older fans were most critical.

In the eyes of conservatives, kneeling during the anthem was disrespectful to the flag and to the country, regardless of the motive. The objections were separate from the debate about the prevalence of police brutality and racism — although kneeling defenders no doubt had their suspicions. The point was that the national anthem was a moment for all to rise above particular divisions and stand united in pride and appreciation for the blessing to live in this country.

What was probably under-appreciated by the critics of the kneeling players was that they were willing to take the criticism because they felt that paying that price was worth it in order to call more attention to a problem they thought was being ignored or downplayed. We can argue whether that price was all that high for anyone beyond Kaepernick, as most players continued their careers normally, whether they took a knee or not. But when the players made the decision to take a knee, they didn’t know that their careers were more likely to be derailed by anterior cruciate ligaments than by controversy. For all they knew at the time, they could end up fined by the league or team, suspended, benched, losing endorsement deals, and/or seeing their playing careers end prematurely.

It is worth noting that Kaepernick did lose his playing career, but he gained cultural power on a scale few professional athletes ever reach. Nike contemplated dropping him, then decided to embrace him completely, touting him as a heroic figure willing to “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” As Kaepernick involuntarily metamorphosized from pro athlete to full-time activist, he gained a level of influence few other figures have, essentially able to demand that Nike recall sneakers that offended his sensibilities.

The kneeling athletes essentially declared, “This may bother you, offend you, or interrupt your enjoyment of the game by confronting you with difficult real-world issues, but we think this is so important, and so widely overlooked or downplayed, that it’s worth it to take this controversial action, and we we’re willing to accept the consequences of that.” You may not agree with that stance, but it is indeed a principled stance. In a lot of other contexts, we applaud that sentiment, as it is a declaration that there are some things in life more important than money and fame.

The league as a whole paid a small but manageable price for the kneeling controversy, in the form of public protests, a denunciation from President Trump, slightly lower television ratings (they eventually rebounded), and a slight decline in attendance. Considering how intensely the controversy blazed in 2017, it’s rather remarkable how it gradually wound down and how little attention it garners today. Houston Texans wide receiver Kenny Stills is still kneeling, but he told Sports Illustrated that he’s met with Houston’s police chief recently, adding, “I’m open to have conversations with people who don’t see or understand, and I think we’ve always come out of those conversations with a little bit more understanding.” There are fewer players kneeling, fewer fans complaining about the players kneeling, and less coverage of it all. The players made their point, and the league and fans largely moved on.

As for Kaepernick, he still wants to play, but that appears unlikely, barring some dramatic change in the thinking of NFL teams. Kaepernick’s agent says he inquired with every one of the league’s 32 teams. It may well be a de facto blacklist of Kaepernick for his outspoken views. Or it may reflect the fact that Kaepernick turns 32 next month, hasn’t played since 2016, and in his last full season lost his job as starting quarterback to Blane Gabbert twice. He may well now be in the awkward spot of being too rusty to help a team that’s built to win, and too old to be a building block for the future.

I mentioned above that conservatives, whites, and older fans were most critical of Kaepernick. While you can find critics of the Chinese government on both sides of the aisle, conservatives, whites, and older fans are the groups more upset about Hong Kong and more likely to see China as a potential threat to the United States.

Assume for a moment that Kerr is right, and that the people who want the NBA players, coaches, owners, and league management to criticize China’s policies publicly are displaying hypocrisy.

Then what?

The hypocrisy of the critics doesn’t change any of the facts about the Hong Kong crackdown, the 1 to 2 million Uighurs in concentration camps, the forced abortions and sterilizations, the harvesting of human organs from prisoners . . . take your pick. That regime is as brutal as any around the world. Yes, a lot of people beyond the National Basketball Association turned a blind eye to the abuses in China for a long time — Republicans and Democrats, business leaders, entertainers, big Hollywood studios. But the league’s groveling in the aftermath of the tweet about Hong Kong by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey takes it to a new and disturbing level. Can it really be that a league full of outspoken activists and irrepressible, larger-than-life personalities — a league that had room for noted North Korean diplomat Dennis Rodman — cannot handle any criticism of China’s policies? Could it possibly be true that not a single person associated with the league is willing to say, “This is bull, we shouldn’t be making deals with these people?” Is it conceivable that the fear of losing access to the Chinese market is so all-powerful and intense that it can make Charles Barkley stick to the script? We’re witnessing a level of message control that would impress the conspirators of The Manchurian Candidate.

Does Kerr think that the hypocrites aren’t genuinely outraged about China’s policies? That these voice are just using them as a convenient cudgel to bash the NBA and its players?

Hypocrisy is almost always worth calling out. But calling it out isn’t really enough; it doesn’t really do much to address the underlying issue.

During the Me Too controversy, there were quite a few conservatives who liked pointing out what they saw as glaring hypocrisy from Democrats, particularly regarding Bill Clinton or Hollywood figures. Indeed, that was some pretty pungent and obvious hypocrisy . . . but now what? Do we point at the hypocrisy and then walk away, concluding, “Our work here is done”? Hypocrisy’s a part of the story, but it’s not the sum total of the story or even necessarily the most important part. Yeah, a lot of Hollywood figures turned a blind eye to appalling behavior by powerful figures for a long time; when they pledge to try to the change the culture, should we applaud and try to reinforce that new, better stance, or is it enough to snicker that it will never change?

Perhaps a bunch of conservative China critics were slow to recognize the value of professional athletes speaking out about issues that matter to them most, and they’re conveniently forgetting their past “Stick to sports” arguments when the topic turns to China. Fair hit, lesson learned. But the reversal undermines Kerr’s position.

While in China, Kerr offered familiar criticisms of President Trump and American gun laws, and then made an appalling reference to “our human-rights abuses,” referring to the United States. Kerr is really comfortable speaking truth to power in Washington, and really uncomfortable speaking truth to power in Beijing. His argument about the hypocrisy of his critics is ultimately an excuse for his own hypocrisy.

The old saying that “hypocrisy is a tribute that vice pays to virtue” includes the acknowledgment that virtue — the right thing — doesn’t become any less right even if it is touted by those who practice vice. The right thing is still the right thing, even if flawed people who don’t live up to that value are the ones saying it’s right.

Yes, one can argue the “Stick to sports” crowd looks a little silly when they ask NBA players, coaches, owners, and leaders to speak out and stand up against a brutal, authoritarian, and increasingly aggressive regime. Silly, but not wrong.

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