What is and isn’t said in the NBA

Where the line gets drawn on political activism

Image | Keith Allison

By now you’ve probably watched the video of billionaire and part owner of the Golden State Warriors, Chamath Palihapitiya, explaining just how little he personally cares about the plight of the Uyghurs. Seriously, he does not care and he wants you to know it.

I’ve seen some of Palihapitiya’s defenders argue that the short clip that’s making the rounds on Twitter lacks context and that a more nuanced conversation occurred in the longer discussion. I disagree. (See it for yourself.)

If anything, it makes Palihapitiya look worse, as he suggests it’s “virtue signaling” to talk about Uyghurs and bizarrely asks another host if it’s worse for 10 Uyghur women to be raped or 10 million American men to be falsely incarcerated.

There’s a lot that is obviously wrong with what Palihapitiya — a billionaire who thinks caring about human rights is a “luxury belief” — argued but what stood out to me was his statement that you shouldn’t criticize another country’s human rights violations until you “clean up your backyard.” I hear this a lot. It’s always stated as if it’s the height of moral sophistication, and it’s implied that you’re a bit of a buffoon if you disagree.

But what advocates of this view usually fail to mention is who that leaves to fight for human rights. In China, for example, it’s people who will likely suffer imprisonment, censorship, or threats to their family for speaking out (which many continue to do, by the way, at great personal risk). It’s not wisdom to think that you should recuse yourself from conversations about human rights because you live in an imperfect place. It’s selfishness.

What’s been even more interesting to watch is how the league has responded thus far. The Warriors issued a statement asserting that Palihapitiya doesn’t speak for the team and his views don’t represent the organization. It was one sentence long, with no mention of Uyghurs or what the organization’s stance actually is here. And Warriors head coach Steve Kerr simply said, “He doesn’t speak for our organization. All of us within the organization feel very strongly about our values.”

But let’s turn the dial back just a few years to 2019, when Daryl Morey tweeted “Fight for Freedom Stand with Hong Kong.” The reaction was immediate and furious. LeBron James said Morey was “not educated” on the situation, and that he could’ve harmed people “not only financially, but physically, emotionally, spiritually.” Brooklyn Nets governor Joe Tsai worried that “the hurt that this incident has caused will take a long time to repair.” And the NBA itself said (in a separate statement written in Chinese) that the league was “extremely disappointed in the inappropriate comment by the general manager of the Houston Rockets, Daryl Morey,” and that “he has undoubtedly seriously hurt the feelings of Chinese basketball fans.”

Compare the reaction to “Fight for Freedom Stand with Hong Kong” to the response — or lack thereof — to “nobody cares about what’s happening to the Uyghurs.”

It’s possible more statements will roll in, but if not, this says a lot about what vocal members of the league value and what they disregard.  And, given the league’s failure to respond to a request for comment from The Guardian, it seems unlikely the NBA has anything more to say. If you need to distance yourself from a simple message of support for freedom but you have nothing to say about total indifference toward horrific human rights violations, it’s time for a look in the mirror.

Sarah McLaughlin is the director of targeted advocacy at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. She writes a newsletter at https://sarahemclaugh.substack.com/. The views expressed here are the writer’s own.

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