Contrary to numerous commentaries by mainstream journalists and editorial boards, the controversy between the NBA and China does not involve freedom of speech.
The controversy arose when Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey sent out a tweet stating “Fight for freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.”
The massive popularity of basketball in China translates into billions of dollars in revenue for the National Basketball Association, which has a decade-long relationship with China. Morey’s tweet, which he soon deleted, has now threatened that huge revenue stream.
In retaliation for Morey’s tweet, China’s state television cancelled plans to broadcast two basketball games in China. The broadcaster is now reviewing any other relationships and commitments it has with the NBA. A Chinese sporting goods company terminated its relationship with the Rockets. The Chinese company Tencent, which has a $1.5 billion streaming agreement with the league, is now refusing to show Rockets games. The Chinese Basketball Association is terminating its relationship with the Rockets. Two Chinese entities have ended sponsorship deals with the Rockets.
Meanwhile, NBA league commissioner Adam Silver, while acknowledging the large financial damage to the league, emphasized that league rules entitle Morey to express himself on the Hong Kong situation.
Others within the league are not happy with what Morey has done. According to the New York Times, Chinese billionaire Joe Tsai, who owns the Brooklyn Nets, “took the opportunity to publish an open letter scolding Americans for talking about the affairs of other nations.” Rockets point guard James Harden stated, “We apologize.”
According to the Times, “The billionaires who control the lucrative basketball league, however, nearly tripped over themselves in their haste to abjure Mr. Morey’s remarks. The N.B.A., like many large American businesses, is besotted by the opportunity to make money in China’s expanding market. And the league once again made clear it is willing to obey China’s rules to preserve that chance.”
Other members of the mainstream media have piped in to emphasize the importance of preserving “freedom of speech.”
Time magazine headlined its editorial, “Amid China Backlash, NBA Commissioner Says League Will Support Freedom of Speech.”
The Guardian stated, “So you have this tension – money versus the rights given to people here in the United States in the Constitution. It’s a huge conflict.”
NPR: “NBA Sidelines Free Speech In Favor Of China.”
Newsweek: “NBA vs. China: The League is Bravely Defending Free Speech.”
They are all wrong. The controversy doesn’t involve the principle of freedom of speech at all.
Freedom of speech involves governmental suppression of people’s right to express themselves. It has nothing to do with how privately owned businesses run their operations.
If the U.S. government criminalized criticism of its policies, as it did during World War I, that would be a violation of freedom of speech. By the same token, when the Chinese government makes it a crime to criticize Chinese government policy, that too is a violation of freedom of speech.
But when a private company prohibits its members, employees, and officers from expressing themselves on certain issues, that is not a violation of free-speech principles. Instead, that is demonstrating the right of private property, which is the bedrock of a free society.
Thus, if the NBA decided that none of its teams, officials, or players could comment on the Hong Kong situation, no one’s free-speech rights would be violated. (The same principle, of course, applies if the National Football League were to prohibit its players from kneeling during the singing of the National Anthem).
At first, it appeared that the New York Times understood this principle when it wrote,“The N.B.A. has an undoubted right to set rules for its work force” but then it followed that sentence with “but it cannot simultaneously claim to champion free expression — the value of which consists entirely in the right to say what others don’t want to hear.”
The Times is wrong. Of course the NBA can do both. A private business can set forth rules for its officers and employees, including prohibiting them from expressing themselves on certain issues, while, at the same time, oppose any governmental infringements on speech. A free society is one in which private owners are free to run their operations the way they want and where government is prohibited from infringing on the right of people to speak freely.
Today, the mainstream press is saying that the NBA should be willing to sacrifice billions of dollars in revenue in the defense of the Hong Kong protestors. Yet, how many mainstream journalists and editorial writers have traveled to Hong Kong to join the protests? By my count, zero. I suppose their reasoning is that discretion is the better part of valor, unless one is referring to the valor of others.