We have become so inured to the shocking and bizarre in the news over the last few years that, when protesters in Hong Kong started burning LeBron James jerseys in the streets, we barely batted an eye.
Imagine trying to explain the scene to a great-grandparent who never lived to see Twitter: A National Basketball Association owner wrote two sentences, totaling seven words, and expressed sympathy for a protest movement on the other side of the world. He retracted his statement within an hour. Somehow, everyone found out about it. Then the league’s best player said that the owner “wasn’t educated about the situation”; he instantaneously became an international pariah.
Now, a week later, most people who ever cared about the situation have long forgotten the incident. Crises have a short lifespan these days. But the NBA-China brouhaha is worth revisiting, not to lambaste LeBron or to decry the encroachment of politics into sports, but to recognize just how reductive — how sportified — our politics have become.
The notion that sports and politics were once neatly separated relies on the same, willingly naïve ahistorical logic that underlies our president’s nostalgia for an “again” that never was. Politics has pervaded sports at least since the Olympics — the ancient ones, that is. Closer to home, the emergence of baseball during the 1860s led to a conscious attempt to use the game to reestablish national pride and to heal the sectional divide through a deliberately segregated league after the Civil War. A century or so before our president fought with football players over kneeling during the national anthem, our president called the leaders of Harvard, Yale and Princeton to the White House to change the rules of football to reduce injuries.
Sports have symbolic power and widespread appeal. They can unify and provoke and initiate conversations among people who would otherwise never talk to each other. Sports can reach us in ways that sometimes politics fail to — the names Tommie Smith, John Carlos, Billie Jean King and Colin Kaepernick resonate for a reason.
But how brave was it, really, for Houston Rockets owner Daryl Morey to tap out 40 characters — “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.” — and then erase them as soon as the tweet drew scrutiny?
I, too, “stand with Hong Kong,” as Morey briefly did, but I acknowledge the hollowness of that statement. Whatever visibility and awareness Morey brought to the cause, his substantive meaning — such as it was — got subsumed in the news by the NBA’s freak-out, only to be subsumed by China’s freak-out. The story became a back-and-forth tennis point of statements and retractions.
If the last two years have taught us anything, it’s that politics by Twitter is not exactly what our founders had in mind. The irresponsibility and vacuity that Twitter encourages transcends political persuasion.
LeBron, at least, spoke to reporters in person when he lodged his complaint with Morey and free speech. It is true that the Supreme Court once warned that free speech is not limitless; inciting danger, such as shouting “fire” in a crowded theater, is impermissible under the First Amendment. Replace “theater” with “Nike store,” and you pretty much have LeBron and the NBA’s stance.
Some defenders of LeBron have pointed out that the star Laker should not be expected to call out every single injustice as the league’s token social activist and moral conscience. Fair enough. But it’s hard to take LeBron’s worries about Morey not being “educated” seriously when he expresses concerns about his own safety even as the Chinese government continues to detain and intern upwards of a million Uighurs.
The Morey-LeBron non-feud feud over Twitter dominated storylines about China for much of the week. Our discourse amounts to little more than lining up behind one tweet — one team — or another.
What’s worse, as sports have politicized, politics have sportified. As Washington Post columnist Alexandra Petri pointed out in a recent humor piece, the Democratic debate lineup could have fielded a full baseball team and then some — not to mention all those relief pitchers who didn’t even qualify for the debate. And those forums are little more than point-scoring exercises. The language of sports has so infected our political analysis that we don’t even realize it anymore.
The problem with all this is that we consume it as entertainment, not news. Treating debates and serious political stories like sports games encourages us to stay on the sidelines, root for our favorites and evaluate winners and losers — but not do anything about it. The NBA-China spat became a dizzying back and forth about who said what and who walked back what, ignoring the actual stakes of the protests.
All too often, we can’t help but conclude: It’s all just a big game to make money. That’s the demoralizing takeaway of the NBA’s handling of Morey’s tweet, and often the upshot from political fights, too. Money defeats most other considerations. But while many fans can stomach that reality in sports, cheering on their favorite teams even if they find the owners loathsome, we can’t afford to in politics. We can’t change the channel or mute the TV.
Pining for bygone days of substance, civility and civic participation doesn’t accomplish much. But surely we can do better than the meaningless charade that was the NBA-China fight. If we concede that vacuous politics by Twitter is the best we can do, then we’ve all lost.
Steven Rome | email@example.com