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NBA silence on China proves it’s less interested in human rights than the bottom line

It is something only a blinkered sociopath or a billionaire hedge fund manager would say out loud. The financial titan in question, Chamath Palihapitiya, said with a shrug to fellow co-hosts of his podcast All-In, “Nobody cares about what’s happening to the Uyghurs, OK? You bring it up because you really care, and I think it’s nice that you care, the rest of us don’t care. … I’m just telling you … a very hard, ugly truth. Of all the things I care about, yes, it is below my line.”

It is something only a blinkered sociopath or a billionaire hedge fund manager would say out loud.

If Palihapitiya were just some random hedge fund manager, his comments may have gone unnoticed, or he may have been labeled just another verbose tool. However, Palihapitiya also owns 10 percent of the NBA’s Golden State Warriors. The NBA, of course, has had an extremely turbulent relationship with China. The league depends on the hoops-mad country for a multibillion-dollar portion of its annual revenue, which, critics say, has caused the league to remain silent on China’s human rights violations, including its treatment of Uyghur Muslims that human rights organizations decry as a genocide.

The NBA’s public relations staff has promoted the phrase “Black lives matter,” but the league’s silence on China has made it a punching bag for Republicans and Democrats itching for a new Cold War with China, especially Republicans who hate the NBA and its players for promoting racial justice. Palihapitiya saying the quiet part loud reveals the kind of callousness that NBA franchise owners must carry in their hearts to exercise silence in the face of such injustice. Already, the Golden State Warriors are distancing themselves from Palihapitiya’s comments, saying in a written statement to CNN, “As a limited investor who has no day-to-day operating functions with the Warriors, Mr. Palihapitiya does not speak on behalf of our franchise, and his views certainly don’t reflect those of our organization.”

While not speaking in an official capacity, Palihapitiya is giving voice to the only reason NBA owners could have for their silence: that the Uyghurs don’t matter enough for them to speak up. The dilemma the NBA finds itself in displays, yet again, the pitfalls in self-promotional and selective justice-speak. The NBA says it is committed to social justice everywhere — apparently except in China, its No. 1 profit partner. This hypocrisy doesn’t only harm the public image of the NBA. It also hurts the movement against racism that the NBA purports to support.

But the NBA has more than just a China problem. Several members of the NBA’s billionaire class of franchise owners have made the league look hypocritical because their business interests are at odds with the league’s social justice pretensions.

For example, much of Detroit Pistons franchise owner Tom Gores’ fortune derives from his ownership of Securus, the largest prison phone service in the country. Securus has a horrible reputation for fleecing the families of incarcerated people by charging as much as $25 for a 15-minute call. According to the Ella Baker Center, a third of all families with incarcerated loved ones fall into debt just trying to stay connected to them. Securus has also been sued over allegations of illegally recorded conversations.

Then there is “Subprime Dan” Gilbert, owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers. His company Quicken Loans settled with the Department of Justice over its alleged role in the subprime mortgage crisis, which, as the housing market collapsed, disproportionately emptied Black families’ savings accounts.

Then there is the inconvenient truth that, per a September 2020 report from The Ringer, 81 percent of NBA owners’ political donations go to the GOP — the party of Donald Trump, Jim Crow 2.0 and Blue Lives Matter (U.S. Capitol Police excepted).

This gap between public relations performance and profit-making reality is fast becoming an Achilles’ heel for the entire league. Commissioner Adam Silver likes to say the NBA stands for something greater. Maybe someday he’ll admit just what that something greater is. Maybe then we’ll learn how many threatened human beings exist below the NBA’s (bottom) line.

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