I attended the Nets-Raptors game at Barclays Center on Friday. As I arrived at the arena, it was clear a protest was developing. Large groups of people, many of whom spoke Cantonese, were congregating outside, passing around t-shirts and props. So it was no surprise to see a huge swathe of protestors in the lower bowl section of the arena sporting masks, t-shirts and banners with various anti-China slogans. I want to thank the players, coaches, officials and security staff for ensuring play continued despite the disruption in the stands in the fourth quarter.
I personally have a lot of sympathy for those in Hong Kong taking a stand against attempts to roll back freedoms long enjoyed in the territory. My cousin has lived and worked in China and Hong Kong for 13 years, and so I am familiar with many aspects of the issues through first-hand accounts. Equally, I appreciate that the situation there is highly complex and increasingly nuanced.
I don’t have a problem with persons who support the Hong Kong protesters staging peaceful demonstrations, including outside arenas where NBA games are played. But I do have an issue with bringing those protests inside the arena, where they could potentially disrupt games and/or lead to confrontations that would undermine the safety of players, team personal, officials, arena employees, league staff, media and other fans in attendance, many of whom are children.
Characterising what happened Friday night as a "fan" protest is, quite frankly, naive. The sheer number of persons participating speaks to the fact this was a well-organised demonstration with substantial financial backing. And this type of activism poses a real threat to the NBA, because it seeks to co-opt and exploit the league’s platform in order to further the political and ideological agenda of an external movement’s backers.
One should not underestimate the risk. Individuals and groups with substantial reach and financial resources stand ready to appropriate NBA games to further their own agenda, if the league stands back and allows this to happen. There is no shortage of causes and platforms that might be championed by those seeking cover under the shield of "freedom of expression." If Hong Kong protesters are allowed into NBA arenas, how can the league then turn away activists promoting other causes: climate change, gender equality, right-to-life and gun control immediately come to mind. Moreover, in an upcoming election year, how could the NBA prevent games from effectively becoming political rallies for any of the various presidential candidates? The potential for the league to be manipulated by outside interests is significant.
I am a huge fan of the game of basketball, and of the NBA, which is still the world’s best showcase for elite basketball talent. I have tremendous respect for the players, coaches and team staff, and for the hard work, sacrifice and commitment required to get into the NBA and to compete on a high level consistently over many seasons. For me, NBA games are their show—I go there to see their talent, to support my team, to engage with the game and, yes, to be entertained.
I do not go to the arena to be ambushed with political or ideological messages from other fans and spectators. Games create a safe and open space where fans with many different social and cultural backgrounds, political and ideological views, can find common ground in their love of basketball and their desire to experience live competition at the highest level. This power to unify and engage with fans has always been a unique and privileged aspect of the global platform the league has worked for many years to build and nurture. Should those who did not contribute to building the league now be allowed to commandeer the NBA brand and franchise to promote their own agenda? It is ironic that, in doing so, some claiming to fight against the Chinese government would employ a tactic that has parallels to the Chinese theft of US intellectual property.
But this is not the first instance of contradiction between certain protesters’ actions and stated ideology. Following comments by LeBron James about the fallout of the Morey Tweet, it took no time for images of Hong Kong protesters burning his jersey to go viral on social media, along with countless messages denouncing the NBA star. Interesting that some purporting to fight for freedom of expression seem happy to extend that right only to those whose views are entirely consistent with their own.
I cannot even imagine what might happen if those individuals, or their like-minded supporters, came to a game with the aim of setting fire to LeBron’s jersey in the stands. But really, how could anyone wanting to do that be stopped? Are arena security now going to do exhaustive searches to make sure a lighter or book of matches are not hidden somewhere in a spectator’s backpack or clothes? Do fans really want mini-TSA outposts with full-body security scans at NBA games? Do parents really want their kids in a crowded stadium if and when a fire alarm sounds?
In fact, crowd control will become more challenging for the NBA as long as protesters feel their demonstrations are welcome inside arenas. The NBA is quite distinct from other professional sports leagues in the close proximity of fans to the action. Spectators can literally touch the players, who wear no helmets or protection of any kind, and are not separated from the crowd by any barrier or protective netting. This means they are uniquely exposed. With the emotional lighter fluid that is alcohol freely flowing at games, the presence of impassioned ideological activists could be a recipe for trouble. I have been at NBA games where tipsy fans have gotten into altercations over seating. Imagine what kind of confrontation might ensue if exponents of opposing ideological viewpoints collide.
This is not what the league is about. The NBA has worked tirelessly to build an image that promotes healthy, positive values: exercise, dedication, fair play, respect, inclusive participation, merit, team work and unity among others. That players, coaches and other league stakeholders have been vocal about causes they care about personally is appropriate because they built this league and they contribute to its success every day. Only they and the NBA family have the right to set the agenda for the league. Third-party interests should not be allowed to impose their own agenda on them or on the league. Isn’t that what lies at the very heart of self-determination?
As a fan, I don’t want to see a repeat of the scenes from last Friday at any NBA game. I find it disrespectful to the players, teams and basketball fans. The league’s DNA is all about basketball, and the game should remain at the heart and soul of NBA events. Those looking to hitch their wagons to the league should remember: it’s not your show. It’s their show. Respect that—at least for 2.5 hours 82 times a year—all of us can come together to enjoy and be inspired by it.