Bill Simmons’ shameful response to the NBA’s China problem

Bill Simmons was my first favorite writer. Because of him my family’s desktop graduated from being a gaming system for Zoo Tycoon and instead became a portal to just two websites: ESPN and Grantland. I still miss eagerly refreshing the browser to read his “mailbag” column each week , and perhaps my biggest childhood regret is never getting my own email featured in it.

Of course that was all over 10 years ago, when Simmons still knew how to write and was unafraid to call out bullshit when he saw it. His day-to-day responsibilities now, as CEO of The Ringer, seem to mainly involve podcasting. But old fandoms die hard, and especially during NFL season I enjoy tuning in to some of his shows. While I’ve long since made my peace with Bill’s pivot from his Sports Guy persona to full-fledged NBA analyst, I didn’t expect his love for the league to extend into paid PR flack territory. And yet here he is, on a recent episode with The Wall Street Journal’s Jason Gay, uttering sentences like:

We can all agree, China … you know, I think we are all a little afraid of China in a situation like this. I also know that I’m afraid to even talk about it.

But he is not afraid to talk about it, really, as much as he is afraid to say anything that could vaguely be construed as anti-China. “This story is so complicated,” you see, and the “nuance goes in so many different directions.” Unlike the United States, of course, which Simmons comments on with nuance-free abandon within the same recording session. Later in the segment, for instance, he says US politicians are hypocrites for wading into the controversy over an anodyne, now-deleted tweet, because we have school shootings in America and politicians take money from pro-gun groups. “The hypocrisy was kind of suffocating the last few days,” Simmons adds.

Presumably he is referring only to Republican politicians here, never mind that Democratic Senators Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker have also criticized the NBA’s craven reaction. But worse is Simmons’ equivocation that gun policy in the United States is somehow the analogue of the state-sanctioned repression occurring in China. (I wonder if Warrior’s coach Steve Kerr also heard this podcast and wrote down some tips for his own recent Duranty-esque press conference.)

William F. Buckley used to say that men who push old ladies in front of an oncoming bus and men that push old ladies out of the way of an oncoming bus can both be called men who push around old ladies. But only an idiot or a liar would do that. Giving them the benefit of the doubt, I’d say Simmons and Kerr fit into the former category; like the Soviets before them, the CCP doesn’t lack for useful idiots in the West. How else to describe those who equate the actions of individuals breaking the law to harm people in the US to the actions of government officials using the law to imprison and in some cases torture and kill millions of people in China?

But as others have pointed out, the response from Simmons and Kerr is made more disappointing and hypocritical because of the outright glee they usually take in weighing in on political issues elsewhere. Again, in the same podcast, Simmons says he thought LeBron James “going after” President Trump on Twitter was one of “the coolest things” an athlete had done. And yet when it comes to China’s human rights abuses, Simmons says:

He [LeBron] is not going near this, and I don’t think he should … I just don’t see the upside, and honestly I don’t know if I care about LeBron James’ take on this story.

Why not? What renders LeBron’s opinion of the president more interesting to Simmons than LeBron’s opinion of how the Chinese government will treat the NBA? As the face of the sport, surely LeBron’s words would carry some weight.

But again, let’s give Simmons the benefit of the doubt and assume he sympathizes with why LeBron (and even Kerr for that matter) do not comment because any more negative words from league employees could jeopardize the billions of dollars the NBA stands to make from the Chinese market. That still doesn’t explain Simmons’ own silence. Unless The Ringer has a presence behind China’s Great Firewall as lucrative as the NBA’s, what should the head of a sports and pop culture site that regularly publishes progressive think-pieces on politics fear from criticizing an authoritarian state?

To be fair, there are those who say this insistence on focusing on the hypocrisy of players and personalities like Simmons is meaningless when President Trump himself seems more intent on congratulating Xi Jinping for the CCP’s 70th anniversary than on giving rhetorical support for Hong Kong’s democrats or Xinjiang’s Muslims. They have a point; Trump’s conduct is also shameful.

But that doesn’t excuse those who have built their brand on being brave truth tellers. Simmons himself was fired from ESPN for justifiably calling out Roger Goodell for refusing to demonstrate any sort of testicular fortitude. What a shame then that Simmons’ insult now equally applies to himself.