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Freedom for me, not for thee? The NBA, human rights, and us

Lance Thomas of the Brooklyn Nets gestures as

Lance Thomas of the Brooklyn Nets gestures as he and teammates kneel in honor of the Black Lives Matter movement at ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex in August. Credit: Getty Images/Pool

Pope Francis met last week with players and officials from the National Basketball Association, congratulating them for their human-rights activism in the wake of the George Floyd killing. After the pandemic moved games to Orlando, the NBA painted "Black Lives Matter" on one side of its courts. And most players wore social-justice messages on their jerseys, including "Say Their Names," "Equality," and "Enough."

But "Fight for Freedom, Stand With Hong Kong"? Not so much.

That’s what new Philadelphia 76ers general manager Daryl Morey retweeted last year, when he was still employed by the Houston Rockets. It earned him harsh rebukes from Chinese authorities and from Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta, who tweeted that "we are NOT a political organization."

But the NBA IS a political organization, as the league's BLM protests — and the Pope's praise — confirmed. The real problem is that its politics stopped at the water’s edge.

That’s also a metaphor for America’s larger mood in the era of Donald Trump, who made no bones about his "America First" philosophy. But Trump's Democratic opponents embraced their own version of America First, imagining our problems as more urgent and important than anybody else's.

In a survey last year by the Center for American Progress, just 12% of Democrats said that "promoting democratic rights and freedoms abroad" should be a top priority for U.S. foreign policy. That was more than double the fraction of Republicans who agreed, but much less than the percentage of Democrats who listed protecting jobs for American workers (30%) and protecting against terrorism (29%) as major priorities.

To be sure, every nation worries more about its safety and well-being than it does about other countries. But America was founded on a universalistic principle: All men (and now women) are created equal. Our credibility overseas rests on whether people think we believe those words. Caring about rights everywhere isn’t just the right thing to do; it’s in our self-interest, too.

To his credit, President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to revive that tradition. "America’s commitment to democratic values and human rights will be a priority," Biden declared in an Oct. 2 statement marking the two-year anniversary of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in Istanbul. "I will defend the right of activists, political dissidents, and journalists around the world to speak their minds freely without fear of persecution and violence."

It remains to be seen whether Biden will fulfill that promise, especially when dealing with longtime client states like Saudi Arabia. But it's unlikely to happen unless American citizens make global human rights a central concern, as well.

And that brings us back to the NBA, which committed a flagrant foul when it slapped down Daryl Morey. Chinese-backed authorities in Hong Kong have muzzled the media, assaulted protesters, and jailed their leaders. These demonstrators demand the same thing as African Americans in the United States: freedom, equality, and dignity.

So when the next Daryl Morey tweets out support for dissidents in Hong Kong — or in Russia, or in Ethiopia, or in Venezuela — let’s make sure to rally behind him, or her. Silence makes us complicit in oppression, as the Black Lives Matter protests have reminded us. And so long as anyone is in chains, no one is free.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the co-author of the upcoming "Free Speech, and Why You Should Give a Damn."

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