NBA shoots air ball on free speech

The National Basketball Association thinks it is breaking new ground in free expression when it resumes its season this week. The league is allowing players to include social-awareness messages on their uniforms. Sure, this is a change from long-term league practices that prevented players from using their jerseys as commercial or political billboards. But make no mistake, this is a hollow and sanctimonious gesture.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver will never be confused with James Madison, the architect of the First Amendment.

Any entity that “approves” what messages its members can profess is not empowering them. In a sense, the NBA would be philosophically more pure to continue banning all messaging on jerseys than to allow only those messages that meet the litmus test of the preferred ideology, whatever that is determined to be. In this case, all 29 approved jersey messages relate broadly to social justice issues. The permissible messages include “Say Their Names,” “I Can’t Breathe,” “Black Lives Matter,” and “Power to the People.” In an amazing irony for a professional sports league in which the average player makes $7.7 million within the capitalistic superstructure, one of the approved jersey phrases is “Group Economics.”

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Allowing sociopolitical commentary in only a narrow lane shows the NBA is preferencing certain timely expression while continuing to stifle comments on other matters that might be important to individual players.

This is hardly intellectual freedom.

It is not free speech for these players when their messages have to be approved. Here’s betting that NBA Commissioner Silver would not approve a player wanting to put a religious message on his jersey, or a message supporting the military, or even a message promoting a favorite brand of beer. This new “allowed” power to put a message on a jersey is less about what gets approval than it is about what messages could never get approval.

When the powerful, including Silver and the NBA players’ union, tell rank and file what communication is allowed, they continue to dehumanize individuals, using them as bit players in larger machinations. It is sad the NBA players’ union collaborated in sanctioning only certain points of view.

Keep in mind that athletes in the old Soviet Union and today’s North Korea were also free to utter pre-approved slogans and phrases that met ideological litmus tests.

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The test of free speech is not in saying what the powerful want you to say, but rather being able to say what the authoritarians don’t want spoken.

It is interesting to note that 16 percent of NBA players have declined to put a social message on their jerseys, including the game’s most identifiable player, LeBron James. James says he commends players who will display a message, even while deciding he won’t, “It’s just something that didn’t seriously resonate with my mission, my goal.”

The hypocrisy of the NBA’s commitment to free expression is clear when looking back on how the league failed to support Houston Rockets’ general manager Darryl Morey when he tweeted last fall in support of Hong Kong demonstrators. Morey later did a twitter apology tour and the league bent over backward to appease China, where there is no tolerance for free expression. At the time, according to an ESPN investigation, the NBA was already well aware of serious problems inside China affecting its own staff.

The NBA rhetorical posturing is continuing with a planned $300 million foundation for social justice causes. Of course, this money will ultimately be coming out of the fans’ pockets in ticket revenues, sportswear sales and television advertising revenues, because the consumer always pays in the end. But the league will look good in the public relations process.

As a private entity, the NBA can push whatever agenda it wants and restrict/allow messaging as it sees fit among its employees. The NBA just shouldn’t try to come off as righteous while favoring politically convenient messages and continuing to silence unapproved points of view. The NBA, like its officiating crews, should try to apply the same regulations to all of its players. A travelling violation is a travelling violation and a foul is a foul. If the league is committed to free expression, then let the expression happen without artificial authoritarianism.

Jeffrey McCall is a media critic and professor of communication at DePauw University. He has worked as a radio news director, a newspaper reporter and as a political media consultant. Follow him on Twitter @Prof_McCall.