The NBA, China and racial justice: How to untangle the league’s messy relationship with human rights

Here are two statements:

The NBA, by professional sports league standards, has a decently strong record on human rights. It allows players to speak their minds. It believes that Black lives matter. It uses its power to fight injustice in the United States.

The NBA, an adored global corporation, has also gone to great lengths to build and maintain a multibillion-dollar relationship with a human rights-abusing government halfway around the world.

They are two factual statements that at this time last year coexisted peacefully. Yet recently, they’ve become entangled, pitted against each other, by U.S. senators and laypeople alike. On Thursday, when the NBA season resumes, activism will be inescapable; players will protest police brutality and racial injustice in America; “BLACK LIVES MATTER” will scream at viewers off courts. And perhaps the most common criticism of the NBA’s initiatives will be a prickly diversion.

“But what about China?!?”

It’s a fascinating retort, because it’s grounded in the most glaring demerit on the NBA’s recent record. An ESPN investigation published Wednesday raised more red flags. For years, the league ignored authoritarian crackdowns and ethnic persecution as it built and monetized a rabid fan base in China. It ran an abusive basketball academy in a police state where Muslims are interned in concentration camps. When Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted in support of Hong Kong last October, and the Chinese government attacking democratic freedoms in Hong Kong bristled, the NBA moved swiftly to salvage its relationship with that government. The league’s most prominent figures, from LeBron James to Steve Kerr, didn’t rush to condemn injustice, as they had so often in the past and have so often since. Instead, they either criticized Morey, or remained conspicuously silent. Officials, in some cases, stepped in to silence them.

The silence was embarrassing. It enables and legitimizes oppression. Sure, the NBA actually stood up to China with more strength than most corporations do. But the widespread disapproval it received was deserved. Where things got messy, and problematic, was when that disapproval became bottomless ammo for whataboutism. When China became the catch-all counter. When injustice became the response to calls for justice.

We can, and should, criticize the league and its most prominent characters for refusing to outright condemn oppression in China. We also can, and should, support the league and its most prominent characters as they try to combat oppression closer to home. Our criticism and support aren’t contradictory. In fact, they necessarily go hand in hand.

When the NBA returns to action Thursday, some players will wear racial justice messages on their uniforms, and courts will declare, "BLACK LIVES MATTER." (AP)
When the NBA returns to action Thursday, some players will wear racial justice messages on their uniforms, and courts will declare, "BLACK LIVES MATTER." (AP)

Injustice clouds every second of every day in every country. To use the neglect of some injustice to detract from the fight against other injustice is to uphold all of it. Change is local. Successful fights for it are often hyper-focused. Black Americans, some of whom comprise a majority of the NBA, are trying to lead one. To support their fight, to affirm that Black lives matter, to do your part to dismantle systemic racism, is not an affront to Muslims detained in China, or families brutalized in Syria, or women denied rights in Iran, or LGBTQ+ people denied humanity everywhere.

To support NBA players’ advocacy is to fight for human rights, period. They are attacking one web of injustice among many. To refuse to support their fight because they haven’t attacked another web of injustice is hypocritical. It is unfair, and counterproductive, to criticize progressive action on the basis of inaction elsewhere. If we do, progress is unattainable.

Now, it is fair to separately criticize the inaction — especially when that inaction could be described as suppression of action in the name of profit. We should acknowledge, and scrutinize, why the NBA cuddles up and cowers to China. It lost hundreds of millions of dollars in the wake of Morey’s tweet. If it were to push harder for democratic freedoms in Hong Kong, it would lose more. Those losses hit the league, and spread to teams, and filtered down to players and employees. Which is why they all say nothing. The NBA believes in human rights, and recognizes how powerfully it can advocate for them. It pulled the 2017 All-Star Game out of North Carolina to pressure the state to protect them. But somewhere between Carolina and China, it drew its line. A line between social responsibility and money.

We all have one. Every corporation, every institution, every individual. Even the most well-meaning people like and need money. Some aren’t willing to sacrifice any of it to make the world a better place. Some are. Everybody, though, is faced with the question of “how much?”

You can argue, and many would, that the NBA should sacrifice more. That the line should stretch well beyond China and those hundreds of millions of dollars. That no American company — not the NFL, not Nike, not Apple — should deal with China. (They all do.) But you probably can’t argue the line shouldn’t exist. If you believe the NBA should fight any injustice at any cost, then you, too, should quit your job and go fight injustice; then every company, regardless of industry, should cease production of their goods or services and pour all resources into the battle. Of course, that’s unrealistic. The world will never be, cannot be, 100 percent selfless.

The NBA, like so many others, does the right thing until the right thing is too costly. We can, and should, criticize the billionaires who own it for not spending more in the name of human rights — because that’s essentially what this is. We can, and should, criticize the league for its response to Morey. We can, and should, criticize LeBron.

Because injustice is injustice, whether we, personally, feel it or not.

And that, precisely, is also why we must support the NBA players crusading against it.

You can, and should, call them out for not condemning all injustice. But if you do so to undermine their condemnations of some injustice, then you’re not condemning all injustice yourself.

We care about China’s oppression because we’re empathetic, and believe injustice is wrong. For the exact same reason, we will listen to NBA players on Thursday and beyond; we have heard them speak about the violence and prejudice they and their communities experience; we will hear them say, as a collective, that Black lives matter, and that systemic racism must end; and we will say, “Yes. Absolutely.”

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