NBA Commissioner Silver: 'Freedom of expression also includes the right to choose not to speak'

There’s so much that disappointing in this 17-minute clip that I honestly wasn’t sure where to start. My initial headline for this story was about Charles Barkley’s response for Vice President Pence. Yesterday Pence said the NBA was acting as a “wholly-owned subsidiary” of communist China. Barkley’s disappointing response: “Vice President Pence needs to shut the hell up.” Barkley sounds just like China at this point.

But ultimately, what commissioner Silver says is so much worse because he’s more than just a commentator, he’s speaking for the organization as a whole. Here’s the set up: The show played the criticism by Pence. Commissioner Silver responded. Then Barkley told Pence to shut up. Then Kenny Smith offered a weirdly rambling comment that attempted to portray Daryl Morey’s tweet as one more example of the NBA’s commitment to free speech. According to Smith, Daryl Morey’s tweet about Hong Kong was consistent with LeBron James and others talking about social justice, “even if, at times, we aren’t all in agreement.”

Sure, Morey’s initial tweet was consistent with the NBA’s previous stance on free speech. What’s wasn’t consistent was the league’s freaked out reaction to that tweet. No one freaked out and released multiple statements about LeBron not intending to offend anyone, or about Gregg Popovice not intending to offend anyone, when they spoke up. On the contrary, the NBA came out in support of ads put out by Bloomberg’s Everytown for Gun Safety, a well-funded gun control group.

Kenny Smith wrapped up his response saying, “I didn’t see a silencing, I just saw an ability to use your platform as we always have.” He then tossed it back to Commissioner Silver whether or not his take on the situation was “accurate.”

“I think it is. Freedom of expression also includes the right to choose not to speak,” Silver said, summing up a view of free speech that isn’t very far from what China has been saying. Last weekend, Chinese state television said this about this issue, “Freedom of speech does not mean that it can be arbitrary nonsense.” Granted, these statements aren’t identical but they do seem interchangeable.

Silver continued, “These are complicated issues…if you take particular players who’ve stood for important causes domestically, things that have been close to their heart, the fact that they may not be as knowledgeable about international issues and don’t speak out on those issues, to me there’s nothing inconsistent with the good works they’ve done in the United States.”

Silver and others have been using this ignorance defense for a couple of weeks. I’m assuming they were handed this talking point by some crisis communications firm. Just say you don’t fully understand the issues. Could it be any more obvious that this is a dodge?

So how long does it take these woke athletes and coaches to figure out that communist China is not on the side of freedom and free speech? Do they need a week? A month? What exactly is the learning curve to realize the country which used tanks to stop unarmed pro-democracy protesters, which currently has re-education camps for religious minorities, and which is threatening to limit the freedoms of the people in Hong Kong, is not on the side of freedom and social justice? As Pence said yesterday, “some of the NBA’s biggest players and owners, who routinely exercise their freedom to criticize this country, lose their voices when it comes to the freedom and rights of the people of China.”

By the way, did anyone in this 17-minute clip use the words “Hong Kong?” I may have missed it but I didn’t hear it. I heard Taiwan mentioned but not Hong Kong even when it seemed appropriate to mention it.

There are certainly lots of companies in business with China who don’t speak up about human rights, but those companies haven’t made social justice part of their brand. The NBA has. The hypocrisy continues to be glaring. Commissioner Silver’s attempt to excuse it only shows the degree to which the league has internalized a view of free speech that doesn’t sound that different from what Chinese state TV is saying.