It became pretty clear yesterday that normally outspoken coaches and stars of the NBA were not going to say anything about the China controversy. Coach Gregg Popovich praised the NBA Commissioner for standing up for free speech, but didn’t say anything about the subject that launched this entire firestorm, i.e. freedom in Hong Kong. Similarly, Steph Curry dodged a question about the topic saying he didn’t know enough to speak about it.
Today, there’s a clip circulating of NBA stars James Harden and Russel Westbrook, who are in Japan for a preseason game, being asked about the controversy by a CNN reporter. “The NBA has always been a league that prides itself on its players and its coaches being able to speak out openly about political and societal affairs,” Christina Macfarlane said. She continued, “I just wonder after the events of this week and the fallout we’ve seen whether you would both feel differently about speaking out in that way in the future?”
At that point, some NBA minder at the press conference speaks up: “Excuse me, we’re taking basketball questions only.” Why hasn’t anyone said that when Popovich is winding up on gun control?
Someone else immediately comes to take the mic away from Macfarlane. There’s some crosstalk as she argues that she’s asking a legitimate question that hasn’t been answered, but the real payoff to this clip comes when the camera cuts back to Harden and Westbrook. Both are sitting in front of microphones and obediently saying nothing as the question hangs in the air. The NBA is not talking about politics suddenly. Not a word.
I don’t think there can be any doubt about what is happening here. Everyone involved has been told—maybe warned is a better word—not to say anything about China or Hong Kong. So while the NBA commissioner is being praised by coach Popovich for standing up for free speech, the word has been sent down internally that no one better say nothing about nothing. And just like that, all the woke truth-tellers in the NBA are silent.
I’m sure the NBA will find a way out of this mess eventually, probably after conferring with a high-priced crisis communications firm in Washington, DC, but at the moment this continues to look like a week-long car wreck. I couldn’t be happier about that. A league that has been as smug as this one has about woke politics genuinely deserves this head-on collision with its own hypocrisy.
Update: The NBA has issued an apology.
— Yashar Ali (@yashar) October 10, 2019