Basketball needs a Hong Kong message

Somehow Nancy Pelosi and Mike Pence agree silence isn't the answer


A few days into the new season, the NBA, LeBron, Nike, and China are nowhere close to moving on from the thorny issue of Hong Kong protests:

More importantly, politicians from both sides of the aisle waded in—and neither republicans nor democrats had even the tiniest shred of support for the NBA’s position.

Thursday, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi tweeted a far stronger statement than Daryl Morey’s in support of Hong Kong protestors. She said things that sounded common-sensical in an American context, referring to a “cowardly government that refuses to respect the rule of law,” and clearly stating: “the people of Hong Kong deserve justice and real autonomy that you were promised.”

Then Vice President Mike Pence got into the act. He went after the NBA specifically. "In siding with the Chinese Communist Party and silencing free speech, the NBA is acting like a wholly owned subsidiary of the authoritarian regime," he said in a statement, adding: "Nike promotes itself as a so called ‘social-justice champion,' but when it comes to Hong Kong, it prefers checking its social conscience at the door.”

He added: “Some of the NBA’s biggest players and owners who routinely exercise their ability to criticize this country lose their voices when it comes to the freedom and rights for the people of China.”

Mike Pence and Nancy Pelosi agree on maybe nothing except: deference to Beijing and silence are losing strategies.

“This’ll all blow over,” feels like an impossible approach. 

By now you might rightly be thinking: This all seems super political. Who knows what is really actually happening over there?

It is tricky. The issue is complex and overloaded with bots, propaganda, agenda-driven media mucking up the truth. But that’s where This American Life is here to save us with impeccable, eyewitness, on-the-ground reporting. “Umbrellas Up” is well worth an hour of your time. Ira Glass explains that the issue started in 2014, when the Umbrella Movement took to the streets in the hopes of being able to elect their own local officials. Those protests failed, but were resurrected when big changes were proposed to Hong Kong’s judicial system. From This American Life:

IRA GLASS: Since 1997, they'd been ruled by Hong Kong laws and Hong Kong courts, where everybody is presumed innocent with the rights we know in most democratic countries. Now anybody could get thrown into the prisons and courts of communist China.

DOROTHY: I'd say that that was the time when I first feel awakened, when I'm truly understanding what's happening when I first go to the march of the no extradition bill. And I was very, very emotional at that time because there is only around 7 million people in Hong Kong. But 1 million walk on the street with the same demand, with the same wish of having Hong Kong to remain its current state.

IRA GLASS: Wanting Hong Kong to stay like it is with its own laws, separate from China. A week later, 2 million people came out.

DOROTHY: At the time, I was feeling very, oh my god, this is so touching. Like, why is people so united? And then the next second, the government just declares that, oh, we heard your voice, but we will be continuing on the bill on Tuesday. So that was like a really big contrast.

And in the morning, you see how peaceful things were. But at night, you see the police coming out and start brutally hitting people. It was really unforgettable to me because that was the first time when I witnessed with my real eyes that the police is chasing people. They are chasing students who did not do anything and start to beat them and arrest them.

IRA GLASS:  Other 22-year-olds also told us how radicalizing it's been to see police tear gassing and beating peaceful protesters. And at this point—I didn't understand this before we got to Hong Kong—a lot of the emotion driving the protests is just about the police.

DOROTHY: Because the government is supporting them to do such things, and there is no penalty for them, even if they are doing things that are completely unacceptable to everyone.

LeBron James produced an excellent three-part Showtime documentary series called Shut Up and Dribble. The name comes from an egregiously racist comment from FOX’s Laura Ingraham. LeBron had said something about Donald Trump, she made a little commentary that concluded he should “shut up and dribble.” The documentary is a three-episode triumph of athletes standing up for civil rights. In the opening, LeBron is on camera saying “without those guys, I’m not sitting here talking to you.” He’s introducing segments on NBA civil rights pioneers Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Oscar Robertson. We learn, in turn, what they did when civil rights were being trampled, when the police used rough tactics with protestors, when bullies threatened to undermine democracy.

It’s a celebration of not shutting up and dribbling. Of standing for something. Of taking risks. 

You can draw a parallel from the American civil rights movement discussed in the documentary to the Hong Kong protests. Pelosi does, in fact; her 93-second video for Hong Kong protestors mentions Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. three times. She says the prayers of “freedom loving people” are with the protestors, and riffs a bit on a sanskrit word that has two definitions: non-violence and, she says, “insistence on the truth.”

No person has to wade into every issue. I respect Steve Kerr’s position that he is fighting for other issues that he knows more about. So why do I keep focusing on LeBron and Hong Kong? Because he is in a bad spot. He didn’t totally sit this out. When Daryl Morey briefly piped up LeBron joined a chorus publicly wishing he hadn’t. He didn’t exactly tell Morey to shut up and dribble, but it was closer to that than insisting on the truth. And then he gave himself a similar assignment.

Somehow Ingraham’s shoddy directive to shut up and dribble—a directive so reprehensible it’s the title of a series that means the opposite—has become more or less the strategy. LeBron has promised to be silent. Nike sounds entirely pro-Beijing. The league has been making general points about freedom of speech, but those Hong Kong-supportive posters at games sure are struggling for screen time.

If shutting up isn’t a winning plan, speaking up is the only alternative. So the question becomes: What are you going to say?

P.S. On Dan Gilbert, LeBron James, and Donald Trump
On June 16, 2016, LeBron James and his Cavaliers beat the Warriors in Game 6 of the Finals. Coming off their victory, the Cavs rushed to clear out of the locker room; Dan Gilbert, the team’s governor, had rented out the stadium for the Republican National Convention, where Donald Trump would receive the party’s nomination for President. 

Preparations had to start immediately. Jeff Ernsthausen and Justin Elliott of Pro Publica write: 

[Gilbert’s company] Quicken gave $750,000 to Trump’s inaugural fund. Gilbert has built a relationship with Ivanka Trump, who appeared at one of his Detroit buildings in 2017 for a panel discussion with him. And, last year, he watched the midterm election returns at the White House with President Donald Trump himself, who has called Gilbert ‘a great friend.’ Gilbert’s cultivation of the Trump family appears to have paid off: Three swaths of downtown Detroit were selected as opportunity zones under the Trump tax law, extending a valuable tax break to Gilbert’s real estate empire.

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