One my my funnest (indulge me) memories of college was driving round trip between central New Jersey and New York City’s Madison Square Garden four times one week in the spring of 1975 to see the Princeton men’s basketball team play in – and win! – the National Invitational Tournament (which was a reasonably big deal back then).
During one of the games, a friend and I unfurled a dorm-made sign protesting something or other about the rapidly ending Vietnam War. We considered it an important message to send, and given the conflict’s damage to America’s economy, politics, society, and culture, and given the destruction wreaked throughout Southeast Asia, I have no problem all these decades later with the content.
In retrospect, though, I wish we’d left the banner back on campus, because I’m now convinced that injecting political and policy debates into a college basketball game wasn’t the right decision. I’m bringing it up today because I wish those well-meaning basketball fans supporting the Hong Kong protesters and China’s other repressive policies inside the arena would recognize that these actions are mistaken, too.
Don’t get me wrong: As I’ve written, I have no problem with athletes and other figures from the sports world expressing political and policy views. I don’t find them to be of any special interest, and way too often they’re the epitomes of ignorance, virtue signaling, or both. But all of them – along with celebrities and others from entertainment circles – unmistakably enjoy the same First Amendment rights of all other Americans. (Complications do arise, however, when their free speech rights clash with their obligations as employees of companies concerned that such words and actions will be bad for business.)
In fact, I’ve also urged National Basketball Association officials, players, owners, and other employees to think much more seriously about their partnership with China (and, by extension, other repressive countries), and even consider a boycott.
But just as I’ve urged athletes to keep their political views (e.g, taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem before pro football games) off the court and playing field (because their fame gives them so many other high-profile opportunities to speak out – and to big audiences), I’d urge fans to keep home their own beliefs, however heartfelt and morally compelling. The same, by the way, should apply to entertainers turning awards shows into political fora.
For even though spectators lack the renown and followings of athletes and entertainers, they’re hardly devoid of influence. They can choose to stay away from arenas, cinemas, theaters, and other venues showcasing performers, franchises, or entertainment businesses whose actions or statements they dislike. They can also organize boycotts of these individuals and organizations if they wish – and social media gives them a more powerful megaphone than ever. (For the record, I’m anything but enthusiastic about such politicization, especially regarding prominent individuals and organizations who fail to take desired stances.)
And I can’t imagine how any court could legitimately decide that such protesters aren’t allowed to make their views known verbally and/or visually on public transportation corridors and systems leading to and servicing sports or entertainment venues (subject of course to any level of government’s right to regulate protest activity in such a way as to permit travel and other everyday activity from proceeding).
But even if businesses and organizations that stage sports or entertainment events lacked the legal authority to ban activity at events that has nothing intrinsically to do with the sporting or entertainment angle of these events (the current legal consensus is pretty unclear, at least judging from this article), would anyone this side of rational and sane really want to go to, say, a Los Angeles Lakers pro basketball game and be forced to listen to some attendees heckle star LeBron James all contest long for his failure to condemn China’s human rights practices? Or to need to see “Free Hong Kong” banners throughout the Staples Center or any other NBA court?
The law plainly prevents such heckling or chants or other disruptive behavior at entertainment events where it’s crucial to listen to the performers. But even when speaking and listening aren’t important, who would really want to visit an art museum whose every gallery contains a protester or two or ten holding up Pro-Life or Pro-Choice signs? Who would really want to walk around a Central Park blanketed with Dump Trump or MAGA posters?
The sports, entertainment, and cultural worlds shouldn’t be shielded from politics and policy, and indeed can’t be – unless we want to make them completely irrelevant to our lives and to our posterity. But given all the opportunities available to all Americans nowadays to express political and policy views, it seems not only entirely reasonable to treat actual performances as refuges – including as escapist opportunities, from these other spheres, but essential to the health and vibrancy of both individuals and the nation as a whole. And these are boundaries that a genuinely wise society should be respected regardless of whether, and to what extent, they’re legally enforceable or not.