NBA Jerseys and China Sycophancy Highlight the Politicization of Sports | Opinion

An email exchange between a U.S. senator and an ESPN reporter illustrated something that most sports fans have known for years. Instead of a refuge from the angry, divisive politics that has increasingly come to dominate every aspect of American society, sports are now just one more venue for political combat. And professional sports—and, in particular, the National Basketball Association and the National Football League—are becoming the moral equivalent of the late-night comedy shows that operate as a preserve of left-wing ideologues.

EPSN suspended Adrian Wojnarowski for two weeks because he responded to an email from Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) by dropping an F-bomb. Yet Wojnarowski's profane riposte was a case of a reporter toeing the NBA party line about what constitutes acceptable political discourse.

Hawley was trolling the league over the social justice slogans it is allowing to be displayed on team jerseys.

The approved list includes some neutral expressions like "Freedom," "Justice," "Peace," "Equality" and "Mentor," as well as others that can be viewed as having a political meaning in the current context, like "Anti-Racist" or "Education Reform." Others are blatantly political, such as the inevitable "Black Lives Matter" (a clear reference to a political movement, rather than just the anodyne underlying expression that no one opposes), "I Can't Breathe," "Group Economics," "Liberation" or a throwback to the politics of the 1960s: "Power to the People."

If sports leagues have made the decision that annoying their customers with politics during games helps rather than hurts their business, who are we to judge them? But the senator's letter was merely pointing out that if you're going to turn basketball courts into a debating society, then it ought to be possible for players to sport their team colors adorned with expressions of support for law enforcement, the armed forces or patriotism—with phrases like "Back the Blue," "Support Our Troops" or "God Bless America."

But as we all sadly know, a player cannot get away with flaunting support for the police at a time when the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement considers all cops to be part of a racist army whose purpose is to kill all African-Americans, rather than to serve and protect us all. To do so would invite the sort of opprobrium that befell a minor sports figure, Aleksandar Katai of Major League Soccer's Los Angeles Galaxy, who was released by his team after his wife tweeted disrespectful criticisms of the BLM protests in Serbian.

An NFL superstar like New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees was subjected to Cultural Revolution-style struggle sessions and humiliating apologies after he mentioned his opposition to the now-fashionable practice of kneeling during the national anthem (initiated by former NFL star-turned-social justice superstar Colin Kaepernick) to show one's belief that America is a racist nation.

What the NBA wants is not free expression, but an opportunity to virtue-signal and inoculate its business from BLM and other radical critics who have shown that they have no mercy when it comes to canceling the non-woke.

Hawley's question about whether the NBA would "censor" expressions of belief in causes that don't line up with the BLM point of view and liberal doctrine is a serious one. But it also exposes the fact that the jersey program isn't so much an exercise in free speech as it is a marketing decision to align professional basketball with fashionable liberal political viewpoints.

The assumption of many observers has always been that pro sports sought to appeal to the conservative instincts of its mostly male audience. But the NBA isn't just bowing to the sentiments of its overwhelmingly African-American players in making sure it is perceived as toeing the BLM line. It may also be an indication that the league thinks the key demographic of sports talk radio listeners—males in their 20s and 30s—is just as hostile to the pro-Trump Right as are the players.

Hawley did strike a sensitive nerve with the NBA when he asked why none of its approved slogans expressed sympathy for the "victims of the Chinese Communist Party," like those fighting for freedom in Hong Kong—or the Muslim Uighurs who are being brutally repressed and shipped to the regime's laogai concentration camps.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver Stacy Revere/Getty Image

The NBA exposed its craven support for Beijing last year, when it refused to support Houston Rockets General Manger Daryl Morey for his tweet in support of Hong Kong protestors. To a league desperate to break into the massive Chinese market and therefore willing to bend the knee to the world's largest tyranny, Morey's support for human rights was an unpardonable sin. What's more, none of the stars who habitually pose as moral judges of society—for example, LeBron James—spoke up in defense of either Morey or the myriad victims of Chinese oppression.

The same thing is happening now with James and other NBA personalities defending Wojnarowski. Since Hawley is a pro-Trump conservative, the only acceptable response to him from a woke league is to give him the finger. The problem with Wojnarowski's email was that he made explicit that which the league would have preferred to remain merely tacit.

But to focus entirely on the NBA's hypocrisy is to miss a broader point about the way pro sports have gone the way of broadcast television entertainment.

Critics of the sports world's politicization, like Outkick the Coverage podcaster Clay Travis, have long pointed out how the sports world has been intimidated by activists into imposing a version of political correctness that effectively cancels the First Amendment for everyone but liberals. He's been equally outspoken about sports broadcasting giant ESPN anathematizing conservatives and mainstreaming left-wing views about race and politics in such a way as to leave little room for earnest debate. In this way, mass media sports entertainment has gone the way of more elite venues like The New York Times sports section, which has prioritized covering the political angle of sports (such as promoting stories like the 2006 Duke lacrosse rape hoax) for many years.

Many on the Left have long decried the way pro sports embraced patriotic themes, and the manner in which the U.S. military uses sports as marketing venues for recruiting. From the Left's perspective, the decision of Major League Baseball teams like the New York Yankees to play "God Bless America" during the seventh inning stretch, and to honor veterans and those currently serving in the military at each game, is itself political. In the Trump era, the flag and the armed services are now condemned as metaphors for a racist nation, rather than symbols around which all Americans might rally.

Where does that leave ordinary fans who just want their sports without any politics? In the current environment, in which the nation's public squares have been essentially taken over by the BLM movement and critics are either marginalized or canceled, they're out of luck.

It remains to be seen whether other leagues will suffer lower television ratings, as the NFL did after the epidemic of anthem-kneeling started by Kaepernick. But with both players and marketing officials pushing for sports to stay in tune with where they think popular culture is heading, fans may have to expect more virtue-signaling about social justice, and fewer traditional patriotic displays, in the future.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.