Worker speaks freely. Employer gets mad at what the worker has to say. Worker gets fired.
It’s a common story in the United States, a proud capitalist democracy (capitalist first, democracy second). We might value speech and expression in the public sphere, but we take for granted that we labor at the leisure of our bosses. Even with the Civil Rights Act, it’s perfectly legal to fire someone for what they say and who they associate with, even if it happens off the clock.
The same applies, apparently, to well-heeled executives.
On Friday night, Daryl Morey, the general manager of the National Basketball Association’s Houston Rockets, tweeted a banal statement in favor of the Hong Kong protesters — “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.” Morey isn’t just an ordinary NBA executive, he’s an important figure, known for his outspokenness.
In theory, Morey’s tweet should be celebrated by Adam Silver, the NBA commissioner who asserted last year: “Political speech is an absolute right within the league,” and responded approvingly to the New York Times’ Marc Lacey’s claim that he oversaw the nation’s “wokest professional sports league.” The charm offensive certainly seemed to work on the commentariat. Columbia University’s Malo André Hutson told the Times last year that “I think the NBA recognizes the intersectionality of race, culture and socioeconomic status of its players.”
While the National Football League was getting rightfully excoriated for its treatment of Colin Kaepernick, lax response to domestic violence and intimation tactics against scientists investigating head trauma, the NBA was a media darling. Players were told to express themselves, and they did, building their brands and the league’s coffers at the same time.
This even applied to controversial political issues, such as Black Lives Matter and the racism embedded in the criminal justice system. The league’s reputation has come a long way since Silver’s predecessor, David Stern, was accused by commentator Byrant Gumbel of being a “modern plantation overseer.” Last December, a fawning Times article by Talya Minsberg that might has well have been paid for by the league, even mused: “What makes the NBA unique is that there is support for political activism from the top down.”
The past week’s events has finally showed the NBA’s “top down” wokeness to be a sham. Morey’s tweets prompted a quick reply from his boss, Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta, who rebutted him saying that “Listen….@dmorey does NOT speak for the @HoustonRockets. Our presence in Tokyo is all about the promotion of the @NBA internationally and we are NOT a political organization.” So much for support for political activism.
Even the players got in on the damage control. All-Star guard James Harden was quick to remind everyone that “We love China — we love playing there … We love everything they’re about, and we appreciate the support they give us.”
Morey, for his part, deleted his tweet on Friday itself. Even still, Fertitta is reportedly mulling the possibility of firing him.
The response from the Chinese government was swift, however, and aimed at making an example of the Rockets and Morey. Its basketball association cut all ties to the team and its state broadcaster said it won’t stream its preseason games.
At stake wasn’t principle, but access to a massive market increasingly interested in professional basketball. An ambassador of ownership-interests, Silver responded appropriately, issuing statement that in its Mandarin version apologized for “Morey’s inappropriate statement.”
That wasn’t enough for Chinese state TV, which declared “strong dissatisfaction” with Silver and bafflingly asserted that “speech that challenges national sovereignty and social stability is not within the scope of freedom of speech.”
Facing his own backlash from domestic basketball fans, Silver has been awkwardly trying to play damage control ever since. In a more promising statement Tuesday, he asserted that the NBA won’t regulate what players and employees say or don’t say.
But that’s precisely what billionaires like Fertitta do every day. Capitalists only clash with authoritarians when they’re doing things like nationalizing their oil industries. They couldn’t care less about whether a country has civil rights or not, as long as they’re still able to generate cash.
Capitalists aren’t the friends of democracy and liberty that they like to claim they are. And if we want to defend and expand our freedoms, this latest scandal is a reminder that we’ll be facing resistance from our bosses at every step.