Thin-Skinned Chinese Government Busy Making American Sports Orgs Look Silly On Free Speech Issues

from the villains-of-the-storm dept

It’s no secret that the Chinese government is no friend to free speech. While that statement must seem painfully obvious, the entire world is getting an education into just how thin-skinned Beijing is with the ongoing protests in Hong Kong. While those protesters are chiefly demonstrating for their own civil rights, the Chinese government has apparently made it its business to police the rest of the world’s speech while holding the second largest economy on the planet as a hostage to its own hurt feelings.

And American sporting companies are failing this values test. And failing it badly. We’ll start with the NBA. Days ago, Daryl Morey, the GM for the Houston Rockets, tweeted out an image that included the text, “Fight for freedom, Stand with Hong Kong.” It’s the kind of thing literally anyone could have sent, except that the NBA, and the Rockets in particular, are insanely popular in China. Much of that has to do with Yao Ming having played for the Rockets years ago. Ming now runs the Chinese Basketball Association.

The reaction to all of this was swift. The CBA cut ties with the Rockets. Chinese broadcasters announced they would no longer broadcast NBA pre-season games. A pre-season game that is supposed to be played in China in mere days is up in the air as to whether the game will even be played. And Chinese run media ran with it all, with one article stating:

Daryl Morey, general manager of the NBA team the Houston Rockets, has obviously gotten himself into trouble. He tweeted a photo saying “fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong” on Saturday while accompanying his team in Tokyo. The tweet soon set the team’s Chinese fans ablaze. It can be imagined how Morey’s tweet made them disappointed and furious. Shortly afterward, CCTV sports channel and Tencent sports channel both announced they would suspend broadcasting Rockets’ games. Some of the team’s Chinese sponsors and business partners also started to suspend cooperation with the Rockets.

Here’s the thing: Twitter isn’t officially available in China. It’s therefore tough to understand just how these Chinese fans became “ablaze” and “furious” without ever being able to see the tweet, had the Chinese government not decided to feed this whole thing through its well-developed outrage machine. Between that and the simple fact that Morey’s tweet was about as anodyne as one could be on the topic of Hong Kong, you would have thought the NBA would be willing to show at least a little spine. Instead, it issued an apology for offending its Chinese fans, while Morey deleted the tweet entirely.

The NBA issued a statement in English on Sunday, saying it was “regrettable” that Morey’s tweet “deeply offended” legions of Chinese fans.

There are reports that the Chinese version of the apology went much, much further in its groveling. This set off a public firestorm in America and elsewhere, with the NBA appearing to bow at the altar of Beijing’s manufactured hurt feelings. It got bad enough that Commissioner Adam Silver finally came out and issued the statement he should have issued to begin with.

Values of equality, respect and freedom of expression have long defined the NBA — and will continue to do so. As an American-based basketball league operating globally, among our greatest contributions are these values of the game¬

It is inevitable that people around the world — including from America and China — will have different viewpoints over different issues. It is not the role of the NBA to adjudicate those differences. However, the NBA will not put itself in a position of regulating what players, employees and team owners say or will not say on these issues. We simply could not operate that way.

The statement led to even more backlash from China, with sponsorships being pulled, and the broadcast and hosting of NBA games now in serious perpetual doubt. Still, it’s worth noting that it took a severe public backlash to get the NBA to the proper stance, in which it protects and backs the speech rights of its employees.

Whereas Blizzard fully rolled over for Beijing when it yanked the prize money and banned a professional Hearthstone player for making statements similar to Morey’s.

Chung “Blitzchung” Ng Wai, a pro Hearthstone player from Hong Kong, ended a stream earlier this week with a statement of support for those engaged in months-long protests against local police and government. As a result of this, Blizzard has ruled that he violated competition rules, and have handed out a heavy punishment.

In the stream, part of the broadcast of the Asia-Pacific Grandmasters, Blitzchung wore a mask (similar to those worn by protesters) and said “Liberate Hong Kong. Revolution of our age!”

As with the NBA, the Chinese government complained. Unlike the NBA, however, Blizzard seems to have permanently misplaced its spine. The company claimed that the official competition rules were violated, specifically:

Engaging in any act that, in Blizzard’s sole discretion, brings you into public disrepute, offends a portion or group of the public, or otherwise damages Blizzard image will result in removal from Grandmasters and reduction of the player’s prize total to $0 USD, in addition to other remedies which may be provided for under the Handbook and Blizzard’s Website Terms.

It feels easy to argue that Blizzard’s “sole discretion” has been severely miscalculated. The rather tame voice of support by Blitzchung for Hong Kong protests are absolutely the sort of thing the thin-skinned Chinese government deems a problem, but that same analysis should not be reached by an American company. Banning and taking prize money from the competitor in this way is about as stupid as it gets. For one, the American market is important to Blizzard as well, and this sure as hell is not going to play well here. For another, the precedent has now been etched into stone and you can bank that the Chinese government, and others, will see just how far they can slam open this door that Blizzard decided to crack.

It would be better if Blizzard, now as much an eSports company as anything else, along with the NBA, could simply stand up for some basic civil rights and values. Money is good, sure. But selling your soul to an authoritarian government doesn’t seem like a good long term strategy.

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Companies: blizzard, houston rockets, nba

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Comments on “Thin-Skinned Chinese Government Busy Making American Sports Orgs Look Silly On Free Speech Issues”

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102 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

Miscalculated?

It feels easy to argue that Blizzard’s "sole discretion" has been severely miscalculated.

How so? It’s obvious that a political statement like that will offend a portion of the public. Anything will offend a portion of the public.

The contract simply contains a ridiculously overbroad clause that negates the whole thing. "We’ll pay you unless we don’t want to." It should be considered fraud to characterize something as a competition, with a term like that.

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Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

Re:

Anyone in Blizzard who has anything to do with BlizzCon — which starts in about three weeks — must be sweating bullets (and maybe typing up résumés) right about now. The timing of this decision could not be worse…or better, depending on how you feel about Blizzard.

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Anonymous Coward says:

How is it, after all of this bullshit that has come to light over the last several years, that people in the public eye still do or say stupid things in public channels? Whether you agree or disagree with what was said (I lean toward "agree" in this case) publicly saying things that could incite people is a dumb thing for a public personality to do. I have a hard time feeling any sympathy for them no matter how true, empathetic or supportive their messages may have been.

People, all people, need to learn to engage their brains before their thumbs. Free Speech does not mean free of consequences.

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Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Isn’t a statement of support for the protests actually illegal right now?

In Hong Kong, maybe, and only because China is working with the HK government to crack down on the protests. But here in the United States, which has the goddamned First Amendment, it is 100% legal.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Re:

Idiot has overtly negative connotations, I would never use that epithet. People act emotionally, this is normal and not considered idiotic. But it isn’t necessarily smart either. As for my right, I’ve claimed none, he is clearly free to his choices, triumphs and mistakes. But moral certitude does not make your actions the best possible actions. Exploiting Blizzard’s platform to make his point is also questionable, and his stunt damaged the careers of the casters as well. Make of that what you will.

Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:5

Exploiting Blizzard’s platform to make his point is also questionable, and his stunt damaged the careers of the casters as well.

His stunt didn’t damage the careers of the casters. Blizzard being in the pocket of Chinese interests did that. Hell, Epic Games is handing Blizzard an L over this situation, which is entirely of Blizzard’s own making. It could’ve done nothing, or it could’ve stood up to its Chinese backers/the Chinese government. Instead, it chose profits over principles — and damaged not only itself, but the lives of three other people in the process.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:6 Re:

I invited you to make of it what you will and you did. Well done. But the positions of the casters were in Blizzard’s gift (subject to existing contracts) and not Ng Wai Chung’s. Still, it would not have been a likely predicted outcome so he can’t be seriously faulted. If it were me I would certainly feel a little guilty about it.

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Re:

But Ng Wai Chung was in Hong Kong. So he was definitely committing a crime while associating himself with the tournament.

And if he happened to be standing in a McDonalds when he said it, would he be "associating" with McDonalds?

I don’t see how Blizzard is in any way "responsible" for a statement made by someone who happens to be competing in one of their tournaments. That they rolled over at the slightest frown from China is reprehensible.

According to cnet though, Tencent owns about a 5% stake in Blizzard, so that might explain things a bit more.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:7 Re:

That may be true,

It is.

but all Blizzard really had to say at that point to cover themselves would have been something like "The opinions of the people on this stream are their own and do not reflect the opinions of Blizzard."

I wasn’t interpreting Blizzard’s behaviour originally, only Ng Wai Chung’s. The point being that he made a clear (probably technically criminal) statement while under the banner of Blizzard’s tournament and exploiting Blizzard’s platform to widen his reach. Not respectful and clearly deliberate.

But I do think Blizzard could’ve handled this better. I mean maybe they’re hands were tied, goodness knows, but making a clearer statement afterwards at the very least.

Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:8

If we assume that Blizzard’s reasoning for the punishment was because Chung made a political statement when he wasn’t allowed to do so, regardless of the statement’s message, punishing him for a rules violation makes sense. But the extent of that punishment still seems heavy handed for the situation. How similar would the punishment have been if Chung had said “fuck Donald Trump and all he stands for”?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:9 Re:

This guy is upset about celebrities "causing turmoil" by having opinions, sometimes while connected with some institution. Like sportsball players taking a knee or whatever.At least he thinks it turns out poorly for them in some way with respect to involvement with those institutions. As if that were the ultimate important thing.

Some people, surprisingly, sometimes give a bigger fuck about some issues more than money and fame, and will use their current status to raise awareness or give moral support. For the most part they are well aware of possible consequences, which are sometimes bullshit, and another thing sometimes worth calling out or fighting.

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

That’s sort of the point. Someone said something in a different country, and China said to the US company "Delete this, fire the broadcasters" and Blizzard, a non Chinese company, listened and acquiesced to their demands.

Also their protestations aren’t illegal. The problem is China doesn’t really care about the law.

A Guy says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Re:

Did they make them delete something outside the borders of China? It’s not that I approve of it either way, I just wouldn’t pick the particular battle of "other countries must adopt US free speech laws exactly in their borders".

It’s a good law, but a global war over the issue isn’t worth it especially if they don’t tell our companies what to do here.

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:5 Re:

what the fuck?

Dude literally explains to you what is already written in plain English above that China told an American country what to do and you write

" …the issue isn’t worth it especially if they don’t tell our companies what to do here."

A Guy says:

Re: Re: Re:6 Re:

The question is whether they told them to do something with their servers in china or if they told them to do something with their servers in the US.

If the chinese police tell me to do something if I’m standing in Beijing I will probably listen. If they Chinese police tell me to do something while I’m standing in Washington DC I will probably tell them to fuck off unless they say please and it’s reasonable/legal.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 corporate stuff

they are just worried about their offices overseas there getting shut down/raided/enemy of the state pressure type stuff. it’s understandable I doubt it comes from any real sympathetic views towards the Chinese government.

There are ways to handle these things better though. I still follow things there every now and then but China does not look like it’s ready to start arresting foreigners of those companies stationed there or citizens and if that happens the shits probably hit the fan or heading into it.

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JoeCool (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 corporate stuff

And that’s why you don’t open offices in countries like that. They sold their soul for some extra money, like many other big game companies today. They have no moral high ground to stand on at all, and are quickly losing the low ground as well.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Because he’s a public figure and has to know, if he has any smarts at all, that saying something like that could affect other areas of his life, to wit: his participation and winnings in Hearthstone. I agree with his support of Hong Kong but his tweeting that out to the world was never going to go without consequence. He should have known that.

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Wendy Cockcroft (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Because he’s a public figure and has to know, if he has any smarts at all, that saying something like that could affect other areas of his life, to wit: his participation and winnings in Hearthstone. I agree with his support of Hong Kong but his tweeting that out to the world was never going to go without consequence. He should have known that.

I’m certain he did.

***First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.***

The man was willing to speak for Hong Kong. In his position, you wouldn’t be.

rkhalloran (profile) says:

Re: Re:

In the NBA case, this was an team ’employee’ using their public position to advertise their opinion, and the employer then choosing to placate an offended group of customers despite its stated posture of supporting US free-speech values.

In the Blizzard case, it was leveraging a “don’t offend others” clause no doubt way down in the EULA against one customer against another customer-group, again in spite of US conventions and triggering a counter-response supporting the original poster. It’s about impossible to make an utterly neutral statement that doesn’t push someone’s buttons, somewhere, so this is a much more questionable move, and may backfire on them to some degree.

Anonymous Coward says:

Reality check

It would be better if Blizzard, now as much an eSports company as anything else, along with the NBA, could simply stand up for some basic civil rights and values. Money is good, sure. But selling your soul to an authoritarian government doesn’t seem like a good long term strategy.

Isn’t the reality here that these things are available in China only with the consent of the PRC? These companies surely don’t have the political or diplomatic muscle to change the actions of this government, that’s a job for nations not companies, and by keeping access to the Chinese people they also help to spread culture and ideas.

I suppose my instinctive feeling is that keeping China talking to them may have been the best move for these companies and the fans of their products. A grand gesture is nice to see but if it comes at the expense of continued dialogue, cooperation and consensus building I don’t see things actually getting better any time soon.

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Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

Re:

by keeping access to the Chinese people they also help to spread culture and ideas

But they’re only spreading the culture and ideas that are pre-approved by the Chinese government. And they’re only doing that because China has a billion people, which makes it a huge market for raking in cash. Hell, Hollywood censors films (e.g., the Red Dawn remake was digitally altered to turn the enemy force from China to North Korea) so they can get the films into Chinese theaters and make more money.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

But they’re only spreading the culture and ideas that are pre-approved by the Chinese government.

It’s more that specific ideas are rejected than that all ideas are approved. That leaves quite a lot of room for expression and communication. A lot of ways to reach people and give them something good or useful or soul-nourishing.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: 'You can say anything you want... so long as it praises me.'

‘A lot of room’ doesn’t mean much as long as it’s restricted to only that which is acceptable to those in power.

Might as well say that you can travel as far as you want, but only as long as you stay on the path that has been marked out for you, no deviations allowed without punishment. Under that setup while you may be able to go in one directed plenty, your ability to actually travel and explore is essentially non-existent.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 'You can say anything you want... so long as it won't harm me.'

Again it’s more that specific options are not allowed than only specific options are allowed. I agree that’s a subtle distinction but I suspect it does create a lot of room. In this case you are only seeing one specific violation.

Maybe I’m wrong. I’m guessing some of this based simply on theories about practicality and anecdotal evidence. Perhaps you know more of situation? I’ve never tried to publish anything in China myself.

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crade (profile) says:

Re: Reality check

It’s extortion. Every time someone capitulates they send the message that the extortion works and are asking for more of it.

China is saying they want to control speech in other countries and these companies are saying they will totally help them do that. That’s your dialogue.

rkhalloran (profile) says:

Re:

In the NBA case, this was an team ’employee’ using their public position to advertise their opinion, and the employer then choosing to placate an offended group of customers despite its stated posture of supporting US free-speech values.

In the Blizzard case, it was leveraging a “don’t offend others” clause no doubt way down in the EULA against one customer against another customer-group, again in spite of US conventions and triggering a counter-response supporting the original poster. It’s about impossible to make an utterly neutral statement that doesn’t push someone’s buttons, somewhere, so this is a much more questionable move, and may backfire on them to some degree.

A Guy says:

Re: Re: Re:

The underlying problem is national debt and maintaining industrial capacity for national security reasons. If Congress stops growing the debt faster than the economy and the industrial base grows some we will have "won".

The problem is Trumps main adversary is Congressional attitudes about the national debt more than industrial capacity right now.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

I’d actually move the problem from his brain to the link between it and his mouth, paired with his ego. Someone’s brain could be completely shot such that it comes up with the most ridiculous and/or stupid ideas, but so long as those ideas stay in their brain it’s not really that big of a problem.

On the other hand if anything that pops up in their brain makes it to their mouth no matter what then it becomes a significant problem, all the more so if their ego makes them incapable of admitting that they made a mistake/said something stupid, and therefore they must defend whatever it was at all costs.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

The problem is Trumps main adversary is Congressional attitudes about the national debt more than industrial capacity right now.

Well, that’s easy to fix.

Trump just needs to veto any budget bill that raises spending and/or lowers tax revenues. Like he did with the "Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017."

Man, imagine how embarrassed people would be about claiming that Trump’s attitudes towards the debt were adversarial to Congress’s if, rather than vetoing that, he’d not just signed it, but gone out, endorsed, and promoted that bill.

A Guy says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

The positive aspect of that bill is lowering the corporate tax rate to be in line with foreign competitors so they are not at a disadvantage in the market place. If that bill also increased spending then it may or may not have been wise. Trump is fine with unnecessary spending. He expects the Congress to back fill all the defense department money he took for the wall.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

The point seems to be that if "Trumps main adversary is Congressional attitudes about the national debt," then that has to include his own attitudes, as there doesn’t appear to be any daylight between the two (and, given the opportunity to rein Congress’s "spend but don’t tax" tendencies in, he didn’t).

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:5 Re:

Then whose signature is this (the third one, in the middle of the page)?

http://www.lintelligencer.com/trump-signs-tax-government-spending-bills-into-law-236-2017/

You are responsible for the choices you make, and the choice of a President to sign a bill rather than veto it is no exception.

If Donald Trump didn’t want to tie himself to "Congressional attitudes about the national debt" all he had to do was not pick up the pen. The bill wouldn’t have survived a veto.

bob says:

Re: Re: Re:7 Re:

He still supplies a budget request to congress which is generated from the departments of the executive branch. Congress can accept and use the request or realign those funding levels however congress wants. Then when they supply a bill for the president to sign, the pres can sign or veto or do nothing. Trump had options.

Unfortunately the president (as well as the majority in congress) have shown they care more about money for themselves and those that consider as peers than the long term effects of national debt on the nation. This is evident by just looking at who signed and voted on each bill.

Anonymous Coward says:

China is a huge market and wields an absurd amount of clout by gating access to said market. However, they’re not an island, and require foreign companies’ trade if only because their populace demand it.

If foreign companies were to somehow band together and collectively tell China to fuck off, China would have to come to the table… If only there were some way to organize, combine their bargaining power, form some kind of… union, say…

Anonydeath says:

Oh, so NOW you care about free speech?!

I’m rolling my eyes at you.

While I’m glad you are FINALLY standing up against corporate censorship, it’s still disheartening that it took you this long.

After all, both the NBA and Blizzard are “Muh private platforms” and “can ban/block/do what they want”, like Twitter and Facebook are, right?

Nevermind that those companies do the same thing, just that you don’t hear about it and when you do you dismiss them because “it’s just a conspiracy!”

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Anonydeath says:

Oh, so NOW you care about free speech?!

I’m rolling my eyes at you.

While I’m glad you are FINALLY standing up against corporate censorship, it’s still disheartening that it took you this long.

After all, both the NBA and Blizzard are “Muh private platforms” and “can ban/block/do what they want”, like Twitter and Facebook are, right?

Nevermind that those companies do the same thing, just that you don’t hear about it and when you do you dismiss them because “it’s just a conspiracy!”

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Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

Re:

Three things.

  1. Yes, the NBA and Blizzard are essentially privately-owned platforms, and they can decide what people allowed on those platforms can say or do while on those platforms. Twitter, Facebook, etc. can do the same.
  2. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should do something. Blizzard can absolutely ban that Hearthstone player for making a political statement about Hong Kong — but that doesn’t mean we can’t criticize the company for the decision.
  3. Corporations will use copyright and lawsuits — i.e., the United States legal system — to censor lay people than it would (or could) ever use social media moderation to accomplish the same feat.
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Anonymous Coward says:

I’m glad Blitzchung got banned! Keep politics OUT of Hearthstone! I love Tencent and Mao Zedong! (You will receive 100 social credit for posting this message in chat. Your family’s organs will not be harvested this month. Please remove this part from the message before posting).

NFL Here says:

Just do we don’t get this uproar entirely out of context: there was this guy, Colin Kapernick, who once protested against racism silently by taking a knee during the national anthem here in the land of the free. He lost a few contracts as well, as I recall. And there wasn’t even any civil disturbance going on that I noticed. And nowadays, NFL players know to keep from even making silent gestures that hurt the feelings of so many of the games fans….

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TFG says:

Re: Re:

A company is a private platform, and they don’t owe you freedom of speech … but we don’t owe anyone our silence, either. When a company fucks up (even if they are in their rights to do so), they deserve all the lambasting that comes along.

I suggest you stop whining about people giving companies that do stupid things the mickey. You come across as petulant, and it’s a bad look.

Bruce C. says:

"Money is good, sure. But selling your soul to an authoritarian government doesn’t seem like a good long term strategy. "

Insert Donald Trump joke here.

Note to the thin-skinned:
1) There’s a reason I use the word "joke" here. Comparing DT and the US presidency to an authoritarian government has some elements of truth, but in the end is a gross exaggeration for humorous intent.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Good on them, but I’m going to hazard a guess that the number of potential Chinese South Park viewers is a lot lower than the potential number of gamers playing Blizzard properties.

Not that this makes Blizzard right in any way, of course, but it’s the reason why they’re doing what they’re doing. Hopefully the backlash at home will make them reconsider.

Anonymous Coward says:

I’m sure Blizzard would retaliate the same way against someone advocating feminism or LGBT issues or similar. After all, rules against political speech. LOL. And there will be people offended by it. I’m sure Blizzard would really be willing to incite that shitstorm, amirite? Idiots.

This is motivated by pure naked greed and lack of integrity. These actions, and the comments defending them only prove that there is no action too reprehensible when profit is the motive. Which is why your government sells billions in weapons to oppressive states around the world.

So lets hope that this really hurts them in the only place they care about, their wallets.

And it’s pretty ironic that unregulated capitalism is funding communism. Which is what these far right conservatives will call anyone who suggests any kind of regulations.

Wilhelm Arcturus says:

NBA Statement

Adam Silver’s statement about the NBA not regulating speech sounded very nice, but the behavior of the league, players, and team officials since then doesn’t exactly bear it out as true.

Given the response we’ve seen, it sure feels like players were told to say nothing. I’m not sure what message Steve Kerr got, but he sure went all out on equating US problems with China’s behavior.

At worse, the NBA is regulating speech despite that statement, at best nobody involved believes the NBA statement so are self-censoring. And if they don’t believe I am not sure we should.

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