The NBA is finally officially back, but the most controversial moment of The Bubble might actually have already occurred in the lead-up. Adrian Wojnarowski, ESPN’s veteran NBA reporter and NBA Twitter’s favorite analyst, dropped a “Woj bomb” of a different kind earlier this month, when he replied “F— you” in a private email reply to a mass press release sent out by Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO). Hawley then posted the exchange on Twitter, where it immediately went viral. ESPN subsequently suspended Woj without pay for two weeks. For what it’s worth, Hawley did decry this suspension. Nonetheless, Woj remained suspended; and while he returned on July 24 without fanfare, just in time for the season to resume, he wasn’t able to immediately enter The Bubble.
Twitter erupted in protest of Woj’s suspension; even a handful of players including LeBron James, Isiah Thomas, and Lou Williams hopped on the #FreeWoj train. As a fan who lives for the chaos every time a Woj bomb drops, I found the whole situation head-scratchingly confusing. ESPN needs Woj more than he needs them; the outpouring of support for him cements that. Moreover, Woj is ESPN’s only counter to NBA Twitter’s other favorite analyst, Shams Charania of The Athletic. (Charania, widely regarded as the most talented young NBA reporter of all time, was actually Woj’s mentee during their shared tenure at Yahoo Sports). By sidelining their best reporter in a time where the NBA has the eyes of virtually all of sports twitter because of the pandemic, ESPN may be making a huge tactical error. It’s not impossible to imagine Woj making the jump to The Athletic himself, or even back to Yahoo Sports, as soon as his contract is up; why would anyone so universally in demand want to work for an outlet that doesn’t have their back?
But, as is the case with most Twitter trends, the whole debacle is far more nuanced than that.
At the crux of all of this is the shameful content of Hawley’s now infamous press release, so let’s – deep sigh – take a closer look at that. In short, Hawley’s self-congratulatory note describes a letter he wrote to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver on the list of 29 custom messages players will be able to have printed on their jerseys for the rest of the season. By and large, these messages – including “Black Lives Matter,” “Say Her Name, and “How Many More” – are meant to drive awareness towards racial injustice in the US. It’s worth noting that none of them actually explicitly mention the police. Yet, Hawley clearly reads into it, as the release blasts Silver and the NBA for supposedly “censoring” support for “law enforcement officers or the military and any criticism of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).” It then compares this “censorship” to that of the CCP itself. Yes, you read that right: A sitting US Senator compared the NBA’s desire to keep messaging focused on racial injustice in the US to censorship by the CCP.
Hawley is not the only one to make a statement in this line, however. Other Republicans have mounted an increasing number of attacks on China for its atrocious treatment of the pro-democracy Hong Kong protesters and its genocidal policies regarding Uyghurs. These comments have especially grown steadily louder in the past few weeks as the Black Lives Matter movement has gained momentum, seemingly in an effort to distract from the Republican Party’s predictably terrible party line on Black Lives Matter.
And that’s what’s really at the heart of it: Hawley’s email is an infuriatingly gross example of “whataboutism”: attacking a stance by painting a false equivalency to another issue, as to catch your opponent in a sort of “gotcha.” It’s a distraction technique we’ve seen time and time again when it comes attacks on arguments for the necessity of the Black Lives Matter movement – “What about Black on Black crime? Aren’t white people killed by the police, too?”
Do Hawley and any of his peers actually care about the Hong Kong protesters or the plight of Uyghurs? Maybe. But I have a hard time believing that this is a sincere call to action, when he’s also a staunch supporter of Donald Trump, who put off any rebuking of Chinese internment camps until John Bolton’s book revealed he allegedly praised them as “the right thing to do.” Hawley’s disdain also hasn’t extended to the many other large American companies are continuing to do business with China. I’m not naive enough to think it’s just a coincidence that the one organization he’s targeting is the one pushing for racial justice-centered messaging on a hugely visible platform.
The hardest part of all of this has been my realization that as disgusting as Hawley’s attempts to detract from the issue are, there is unfortunately a small kernel of truth to this particular whataboutism. No – limiting statements to the issue at hand, an issue experienced by many of the players themselves – is not akin to censorship by the CCP. Nor can you credibly say “Blue Lives Matter” and “Free Hong Kong” in the same breath when part of the issue with the Hong Kong protests is also brutal repression by law enforcement.
But the NBA’s relationship with China is undeniably problematic, and its repeated silence or missteps on the subject should alarm anyone who claims to stand for human rights. When Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey tweeted in support of the Hong Kong protesters last fall, the fallout was almost instantaneous as the league jumped straight into damage control. Even LeBron James – who is a champion of social justice in the US on and off the court – called the tweet “misinformed.” It’s hard to ignore why: the NBA’s various dealings with China amount to more than $4 billion – and that’s before adding in individual players’ sponsorship contracts. The NBA community has been fairly mum on the issue ever since.
In sum, Woj lost his temper over Hawley’s insincere but slightly true critique of the NBA that he loves and serves. ESPN threw him under the bus, for unclear reasons but possibly to quell rumors of being too liberal, but potentially put their future ratings (read: finances) at risk in the process. The NBA is taking baby steps to affirm Black Lives Matter, but continues to make money off of uncomfortable silence on China. We can be tepidly happy about the former while still being frustrated about the latter.
The one thing we’ve confirmed from this whole mess isn’t even breaking news: There are no real winners under capitalism.