Political organization

The NBA is a political organization when it comes to BLM, but for Hong Kong, not so much

Pope Francis met with National Basketball Association players and officials last week, commending them for their human rights activism following the killing 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 shirts, including “Say Their Names”, “Equality” and “Enough”.

But “Fight for freedom, support Hong Kong”? Not really.

That’s what new Philadelphia 76ers general manager Daryl Morey retweeted last year while still employed by the Houston Rockets. This earned him harsh reprimands from Chinese authorities as well as several NBA players, including LeBron James. Morey quickly apologized for “any offense” he may have caused Rockets fans or his “friends in China.” Distancing himself 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 Pope’s praise — have confirmed. The real problem is that his policy stopped at the water’s edge. If you condemn US human rights abuses, the league said, you will earn a standing ovation; but if you denounce China for the same, we will denounce you.

And it’s also a metaphor for America’s broader mood in the days of President Donald Trump, when global concerns trumped domestic ones. Trump has made no secret of his America First philosophy, alienating other democracies and coddling dictators when it served his purposes. But Trump’s Democratic opponents have embraced their own version of America First, imagining our issues as more pressing and important than anyone else’s.

In a poll conducted last year by the Center for American Progress, only 12% of Democrats said that “promoting democratic rights and freedoms abroad” should be a top priority of US foreign policy. That was more than double the proportion of Republicans who agreed, but far less than the percentage of Democrats who cited protecting American workers’ jobs (30%) and protecting 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 depends on people believing that we believe these 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 has pledged to revive that tradition. “America’s commitment to democratic values ​​and human rights will be a priority,” Biden said, in an Oct. 2 statement marking the two-year 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 freely without fear of persecution and violence.”

It remains to be seen whether Biden will deliver on that promise, especially when dealing with longtime allies like Saudi Arabia. But that is unlikely to happen unless American citizens also make human rights around the world a central concern. Our politicians won’t care if we don’t.

And that brings us back to the NBA, which made a flagrant foul of slapping Morey. China-backed authorities in Hong Kong have muzzled the press, assaulted protesters and imprisoned their leaders. These protesters are demanding the same thing as African Americans in the United States: freedom, equality and dignity. We undermine arguments for justice when we limit them to our own borders.

Let’s be clear: Like the Pope, I wholeheartedly support the NBA’s efforts to expose 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 solve every human rights problem in the world.

But I think it’s incumbent on all of us to protect the rights of people 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 behind him, or her. Silence makes us complicit in oppression, as the Black Lives Matter protests have reminded us. And as long as someone is chained, 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.