Of course, what sports reporter Adrian Wojnarowski thinks about Missouri Republican Senator Josh Hawley, or the Black Lives Matter movement, or racial justice and police brutality issues generally, or even the proper role of politics in sports, has no intrinsic importance.
I mean, he’s a…sports reporter. As a human being, he’s entitled to his views, and in principle he’s entitled to express them in public. But although he’s great at scooping the competition on the latest roster moves by the Minnesota Timberwolves or whoever, he brings no special qualifications to these matters, and based on what we know, has no distinctive, much less especially valuable, insights to offer. Indeed, he does’t even apparently have any interest in offering them (unless you’re the kind of person impressed with the eloquence of an F-bomb).
Nonetheless, Wojnarowski’s outburst, and suspension by his employer, ESPN, represents a particularly informative opportunity for explaining why the industries like sports and entertainment should stay away from politics not necessarily for the good of the country (a subject that’s unexpectedly beside the point for this discussion), but for their own good. Just as important, his moments of fame outside the professional basketball world make clear that the so-called Cancel Culture that’s emerged with special force recently in the United States has some genuinely constructive uses in these current fraught times.
To recap, Wojnarowski covers pro basketball for sports cable network and website ESPN, and clearly has strong feelings about racial justice/policing etc issues. We know this from his reaction last Friday to message sent by Hawley to the National Basketball Association (NBA) protesting its decision for allowing players to wear “messages that promote social justice on its jerseys this summer but not allow messages that support law enforcement or are critical of China’s Communist Party.” He responded by emailing his F-bomb to Hawley, who proceeded to send out a tweet containing the communication’s image. (See this account for the details.)
To his credit, Wojnarowski has apologized completely, and with apparent sincerity for showing disrespect. But regardless of what you think about the issues above, the NBA’s decision under Commissioner Adam Silver, to “uphold” and even “stand for” values that no one of good will could object to in the abstract is bound to be a recipe for continuing trouble and a hornet’s nest it would do well to avoid for two main and overlapping reasons.
First, what non-arbitrary yardsticks, if any, does the NBA, or a similar organization, use to decide which views it endorses. As widely noted, the NBA is a strongly majority African American league, and Silver has explained that he therefore has tried to be sensitive to the concerns of black players, many of whom have experienced firsthand the varied socioeconomic problems and forms of prejudice that have plagued the black community for so long. That’s perfectly fine, and in my opinion laudible, when it comes to supporting these players expressing their views off the court, as individuals. But as representatives of a team or entire league? And when the league itself takes stances?
This is when a raft of thorny issues rears its head, especially if the league’s policy isn’t “anything goes.” For example, what if – as Hawley suggested – a player wants to wear on his jersey a pro-police or pro-military slogan, or perhaps “All Lives Matter”? Would the league allow that? And if not, on what grounds? Does the NBA really want to permit some forms of Constitutionally protected expression but not others? Would it be willing to establish an issue-oriented inspired litmus test for permission to be drafted or otherwise sign a contract? Would non-playing employees be subjected to the same requirements, too? Or would the league impose a “shut up and dribble”-type rule on players who dissent from its orthodoxy?
These questions may seem academic. But what if the day comes when most NBA players aren’t African Americans? As the league keeps proudly observing, athletes from abroad keep pouring in even now. Maybe they’ll care a lot about police brutality in America’s inner cities, either because they’ve been following the issue closely or because their consciousness has been raised by their African American teammates. But what if, some day, Bosnian-born players wanted to wear jerseys decrying what they see as Serbia’s ar crimes during the Balkans wars that broke out in the 1990s? (Intra-ethnic tensions in the region remain high to this day.) What if Lithuanian-born players wanted to use their uniforms to protest Russian President Vladimir Putin’s apparent designs on their homeland? If enough European players filled NBA rosters, would the league relish the thought of taking institutional stands on these matters? And if it did, how would it decide which positions to take? Majority vote of the players? The owners? Both? The fans?
Or take an international issue on which (as Hawley noted) on which the league has already made clear it prefers not to speak out – human rights in China. What if a player wanted to wear a slogan that slammed Chinese dictator Xi Jinping? What if a player of Chinese descent sought to protest Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong? What if one of the NBA’s Muslim players wanted to publicize atrocities committed by China against his co-religionists in the Xinjiang region? Would such players be censored? That option certainly can’t be ruled out, because the league’s lucrative China business has unmistakably led it to tread warily on this ground – even though its influence in the People’s Republic is considerable precisely because of the huge numbers of ardent Chinese NBA fans. But could the league proscribe this or any other kind of selective censorship on the basis of principle? Good luck with that. In fact, as with the other international issues mentioned above, it’s hard to imagine a better formula for sowing bitter divisions up and down league rosters and throughout the fan base. What intelligently led business would want to stir up that hornet’s nest?
Which brings us to the second major reason to de-politicize the NBA – and the related entertainment industry: They’re businesses. Any efforts to impose official orthodoxies will antagonize significant shares of their customer bases as sure as it’s bound to please others. And the league would expose itself to the Cancel Culture – which would have every right to rear its head, and which in these circumstances arguably would serve useful social, political, and economic purposes. After all, if it’s OK for the NBA as a business to take a stand I don’t like, it’s just as OK for me to register my dislike, and/or try to change its mind through the most effective legal means available to me and other individual customers – our pocketbooks.
These actions would by no means amount to calls to censor the NBA, or deny it or any of its franchises a right to free speech. If business owners want to use their assets to push certain agendas, that’s their prerogative. (I’m much less comfortable with permitting businesses to use unlimited amounts of money to fund campaigns for political office – but let’s leave that subject for another time.) It’s anyone’s prerogative, however, to object by not purchasing the product – just as it’s anyone’s prerogative to turn the channel if they decide they don’t like a TV or radio program. If these consumer actions endanger a business’ profits – too bad for them, and no great loss for the nation. If these organizations aren’t willing to pay a commercial price for their principles, chances are they’re not that deeply held to begin with.
The same rule of thumb, by the way, should apply to organizations as such that are resisting becoming politicized – like the Washington Redskins football team, which just yesterday announced that it will be changing its name because many (though no one knows exactly how many) view that monicker as a racial slur. As I see it, owner Dan Snyder has the God-given right to name the team anything he wants. And fans have the right to object by avoiding games in person or on TV, shunning team merchandise etc.
At this point, it’s crucial to note that skepticism about the wisdom of sports leagues and their teams (and other businesses) taking institutional stands on public issues doesn’t automatically translate into opposition to individual athletes or owners or other employees of sports leagues and other businesses taking such positions as individuals, without identifying themselves with their employers. That freedom needs to be respected – or at least that’s how I see it.
But how I see it, it turns out, isn’t the law. Private businesses generally can fire employees for any reason they like, including speaking out politically outside the workplace, as long as the reason has nothing to do with race, religion, gender and, now, sexual orientation. One reason surely is that such actions can reflect poorly on a business, reduce its earnings, and wreak non-trivial collateral damage – e.g., via a revenue drop big enough to endanger salary and wage levels, and even jobs. In other words, in most cases, you as an individual worker can legally be canceled.
Another reason evidently is that this kind of firing doesn’t inherently prevent you from expressing yourself. It simply prevents you from expressing yourself and holding a particular job. Given how important jobs are, that can easily look like a distinction without a difference. But again, if a principle is held strongly enough, it should be worth an economic price.
Speaking of reflecting poorly on business, that’s apparently what the Washington, D.C. pro football team’s sponsors decided when they started threatening Snyder recently with withdrawing sponsorships if he didn’t relent and drop “Redskins.” In effect, they told him they’d fire his business, as they had every right to do And Snyder quite understandably decided that his profits were more important than preserving his memories of his boyhood sports idols. (He’s a native Washingtonian and lifelong-fan,)
Celebrity status, as in sports, of course, creates interesting wrinkles – mainly, a team could in theory fire an athlete for expressing a view that owners consider objectionable, but enough fans might disagree strongly enough to retaliate commercially against the team. In these cases, the only reasonable conclusions to draw are that (1) life is sometimes unavoidably unfair and (2) some decisions are risky, and businesses that employ and even foster outspoken stars, like sports franchises, need to hope they have the judgment to come out on top. The same goes for keeping or dumping controversial names and mascots.
Generally speaking, Cancel Culture-type entertainment issues play out like Cancel Culture-type sports issues, but some crucial differences should be taken into account. Principally, whereas sports as such have absolutely nothing to do with public issues, literature, music, theater, the movies, and the like have always been closely connected with these matters. How could they not? Of course, the arts have created any amount of pure fluff. Much so-called serious art plays purely to our pure emotions, too.
But from their beginnings, the arts have represented expressions of ideas as well, and any healthy society that wants to stay healthy should hope that individual artists and organizations keep sounding off vigorously on “politics.” Moreover, logically speaking, there’s no built-in problem with entertainment companies and those institutions that organize the industry (and administer awards) championing and condemning specific positions as well.
By the same token, however, whether you denigrate the practice as intolerant Cancel Culture or not, it’s any art or entertainment consumer’s right to choose not to patronize any individual entertainer or artist or entertainment business or organization they disagree with about anything, and even to encourage others to join in. The market and the consciences of individuals and companies and organizations in the arts and entertainment fields will decide what kind of arts and entertainment products will be produced, with whose sponsorship (if any) and how influential and commercially successful they’ll be.
The real dilemmas for consumers come in when, say, your favorite singer makes terrific music but expresses offputting ideas on public affairs. In those cases, there’s no reasonable alternative to each individual figuring out which he or she values more – the instrumentals and vocals, or the lyrics – and there’s no ready formula for doint so. For me, it’s how I justify continuing to play Jefferson Starship’s musically magnificent but politically infantile (putting it mildly) 1970 album “Blows Against the Empire,” but also how I’ve decided that I’ll probably keep ignoring Roger Waters’ new material because I find the Pink Floyd co-founder’s anti-Israel invective so despicable.
Of course, Cancel Culture-type issues have arisen in connection with other industries as well. For me, because they generally have nothing to do with ideas and values, the sports rules of thumb seem to be appropriate for them, too. So I’ll keep passing up Ben & Jerry’s – and not simply because they always put in too many fill-ins and too little ice cream. Ditto for Nike’s various social justice kicks (which the athletic shoe company apparently views as being perfectly compatible with its massive job and production offshoring). And since I can now get a good cup of joe, find a comfortable place to sit, take a load off, and use free WiFi at any number of coffee bars around the country, so long to Starbuck’s and its insufferable in-my-face “commitment to racial justice and social equity.”
Whatever you think of the above arguments, they still leave unresolved three big aspects of the intertwined rise-of-institutional “wokeness/“Cancel Culture debate still unresolved.
The first, concerning historical monuments, markers, and names etc. I’ve already dealt with extensively, and you can examine my views by entering terms like “Confederacy” or “history” in RealityChek‘s search engine.
The second concerns the view that the kind of voting with your pocketbook that I’m recommending clashes with the idea that vigorous debate is a cornerstone of any sound democracy. I strongly agree with that notion. But it strikes me as naive to believe that at present, or in the foreseeable future, the conditions exist or will exist for any kind of helpful debate about the emergence of woke corporate culture.
For decisions like the NBA’s to take up certain causes (but not others) didn’t result from any engagement with the fan base. I’m sure some polls have been taken, but those were undoubtedly market research exercises to try to see whether such moves would pass muster with its customers – or whether they mattered at all. But to my knowledge, neither the league nor any of its corporate counterparts offered the general public the option of commenting substantively, much less indicated that these comments would be taken into account. The decisions were made by fiat. And given the vast disparity between the power and influence of a huge, well-financed business on the one hand, and individual customers or fans on the other, who can reasonably doubt that these debates won’t even happen until it’s clear that fan objections are impacting bottom lines?
If anything, these points are even stronger when it comes to institutions that are widely supposed to be in the debate-fostering business themselves, at least in part. It’s true, I’ve argued, that at least when we’re talking about the news media, or the broader information industries, these suppositions are largely misconceptions. It’s also true that I wouldn’t advise anyone to stop reading, say, The New York Times, because it’s chosen to enter the field of education and create the (in my view recklessly slanted) “1619 Project” to rewrite American history, or because its news coverage too often seems to be shaped by a widely held staff view that the sins of President Trump are great enough to warrant abandoning traditional journalistic ideals like objectivity.
But these Times decisions also were made by fiat, with no substantive input sought from readers. So if at some point I or anyone else concludes that the Times‘ reporting and analysis has become so unreliable as to be useless, I’ll cancel my subscription with a perfectly good conscience, and hope others do likewise.
The third dimension of the wokeness/Cancel Culture debate concerns wrongs committed or controversial remarks made by high profile individuals, and the proper responses both of the general public and of whatever employers or constituencies to which they’re responsible. Simply put, should such words and deeds be forgiven or punished, and if the latter, is there a statute of limitations?
Clearly, some of the deeds (like sex crimes) bring into the picture the criminal justice system, which I assume everyone views as the way society should deal with these actions. More difficult to decide, at least in principle, is how to treat those convicted once they’ve paid their debt (assuming they get released). At this point, I don’t see any viable alternative to engaging in or avoiding Cancel Culture-type responses, since the offenses cover such a wide range of actions, and since the subsequent behavior of the guilty is certain to vary greatly as well. Therefore it seems impossible to figure out a cookie-cutter blueprint for forgiveness or lack thereof. Case-by-case seems to be the best strategy for their employers, too.
Nor do I see any viable alternative to dealing with case-by-case to speech that’s legal but that offends for all sorts of valid reasons. In other words, there’s no escaping judgment calls.
So let’s give the Cancel Culture one or two cheers (as opposed to the full three). I just wish I was more confident that America’s national supply of judgment was adequate or increasing strongly.