He might not sanctimoniously opine on injustice in America the way Steve Kerr and LeBron James constantly do, but count Charles Barkley among those who think NBA players and officials should just shut up about human rights in China and keep raking in the dough.
Last week on TNT, Barkley said it was wrong for Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey to speak in support of the pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. Speaking on a panel with Shaquille O’Neal and Kenny Smith, Barkley said the Rockets are the most popular team in China and that Morey “didn’t look at the big picture,” which for Barkley is obviously all about profits, not human rights.
Forget the scores of actual human beings imprisoned in communist China’s concentration camps and gulags and the millions of Hong Kongers fighting for their freedom. No, says Barkley, the “big picture” is that LeBron and Nike make billions selling shoes in China, and maybe Morey should have thought about that before spouting off about human rights.
Barkley was responding to Shaq, who despite doing quite a bit of business himself in China, is practically the only figure in this entire affair who has publicly shown support for Morey and free speech and human rights. “We as American people, we do a lot of business in China. And they know and understand our values and we understand their values,” Shaq said. “And one of our best values in America is free speech. We’re allowed to say what we want to say and we’re allowed to speak up about injustices, and that’s just how it goes. If people don’t understand that, that’s something they have to deal with.”
He added that Morey was right to speak up, and that “whenever you see something wrong going on anywhere in the world, you should have the right to say, ‘That’s not right.’”
Barkley replied that Morey might have had the right to speak out, but should have kept his mouth shut. Like LeBron, who has been justly lambasted for saying Morey was “misinformed” about the situation in Hong Kong, Barkley apparently doesn’t think much of speaking out if it’s going to cost you anything. LeBron, he says, was “treated unfairly” because after all, he was just “trying to protect his money.” Later in the exchange, Barkley said that if Morey has a problem with China, “He can quit.”
Our Highest Allegiance Should Be to Our Pocketbooks?
What’s remarkable here isn’t that Barkley is an outlier on this issue, but that Shaq is. At one point, he cut Barkley off and said, “China can’t tell us what to do and we can’t tell them what to do. That’s the bottom line.”
That’s also where the two men fundamentally disagree. Barkley clearly thinks China can and should tell NBA players and officials what to do, and that they should obey. In Barkley’s mind, Morey’s first allegiance shouldn’t be to freedom or democracy, but to his employer and pocketbook.
Barkley’s not alone. The list of American companies and brands willing to toe the Chinese Communist Party’s line is long. Like LeBron and Kerr and many others, these otherwise woke companies and their well-paid executives won’t hesitate to lecture Americans about their many moral failings but dare not breathe a bad word about actual political repression and violence in China.
Thus you have people like Disney CEO Bob Iger, who last week said that “caution is imperative” when criticizing China. “To take a position that could harm our company in some form would be a big mistake,” Iger said at a Wall Street Journal tech conference. “I just don’t believe it’s something we should engage in in a public manner.”
As my colleague Emily Jashinsky noted, Iger isn’t cautious at all about taking a public position on issues like abortion, or suggesting that Georgia’s strict abortion laws would make it “very difficult” to film there. Never mind the hypocrisy of scraping and bowing before communist China but sanctimoniously taking a “principled” stand on domestic issues.
The difference of course is that it costs these people nothing to speak out on domestic political issues—in fact, they’re often lionized for it. LeBron, who has made such a show in recent years of speaking out against President Trump and opining about race in America, has nothing to say about tyranny and repression in communist China. And we all know why.
All of this underscores how unreliable sports celebrities and Hollywood executives are on stuff that really matters, and why we should pay less attention to what they have to say about things like China and human rights.
To paraphrase Barkley’s famous “I am not a role model” commercial from 1993: Charles Barkley is not a role model. He does not get paid to be a role model. He gets paid to talk about the NBA on television, and if you think he’s going to risk that well-paying gig to stand up to communist thugs in China and speak out for freedom and democracy, you’re dreaming.