As the NBA season starts this week, it may be overshadowed by what some have described as a geopolitical controversy.
Earlier this month, a pro-Hong Kong tweet by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey threw the league into disarray. The tweet was criticized by the government of China – where basketball, the NBA and the Rockets had been highly popular – and the NBA found itself in a no-win situation. Supporting Morey’s right to free speech would cost the league billions of dollars in Chinese investments, while any sort of reprimand would be seen in the United States as a rejection of free speech.
The entire episode is incredibly complex for several reasons, and has been dealt with more thoroughly elsewhere than I have space for in this column, but in my mind, the incident raises the question of whether athletes need to comment on every political issue. Inevitably, the burden of answering questions in this situation falls on the NBA’s high-profile players and coaches, many of whom – including LeBron James, Steve Kerr and Gregg Popovich – have been outspoken on political issues in the past and were criticized for either their silence or their responses.
It’s important to note, compared to other sports leagues, the NBA has cultivated a progressive image by welcoming its players and coaches to sound off on a range of political issues.
In a column in April, I argued athletes and entertainers are human beings and therefore entitled to opinions on any issue. While I continue to believe that’s true, I don’t think that necessarily means people are required to comment on topics where they may be uninformed.
While athletes – or anyone else for that matter – should be permitted to express an opinion on any topic they want, I don’t think it’s mandatory to have an opinion.
When LeBron James or any other athlete in a league comprised of mostly African-Americans expresses a view relating to issues faced by that community, I trust that those opinions are formed by at least lived experience, if not research. I’d hazard a guess that those same athletes probably haven’t spent as much time thinking about the political dynamics between Hong Kong and China, and I wouldn’t expect them to be prepared to gracefully walk the tightrope they now face.
Just because people can have opinions doesn’t mean they need to have opinions, and when someone is uninformed, I think “I don’t know” is an acceptable answer.