The Athletic didn’t publish any articles about Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey’s since-deleted Friday tweet in support of pro-democracy Hong Kong protestors, or about the subsequent manic attempts at damage control by the Rockets owner and the NBA, until a couple days after the controversy began. It was a long enough delay that readers began to take notice. One Athletic NBA writer, when asked about the lack of coverage, said it was because of the publication’s insistence on quality over quickness.
When the Athletic did get around to covering the fallout from Morey’s tweet, though, they fell way short of “getting it right.” This article by senior NBA writer Joe Vardon is framed as a kind of explainer for the whole affair, but seems to take the Chinese establishment’s explanation for the outrage at face value. This had the unfortunate effect of presenting an authoritarian government’s propaganda uncritically, and under the guise of neutral journalism. Here’s a taste:
In America, what’s happening in Hong Kong is about an erosion of civil liberties, like free speech. An invasion of privacy. Oppression. These are the kinds of things NBA players and coaches speak out against all the time, when they happen in America.
Boiling down a highly complex issue into a paragraph or two, though, in China, this isn’t about civil liberty. According to Tsai, and others interviewed by The Athletic, it’s about national sovereignty, and about everyone playing by the same rules. Hong Kong is a part of China, and the people there should play by the same rules as the people on the mainland.
Where the article fails is not just in its inability to explain Hong Kong’s uniquely autonomous existence within China, which is a complicated topic well beyond any NBA writer’s usual beat, but also in its over reliance on sources who present only the Chinese’s government’s official point of view. Aside from the public statements of Morey and Adam Silver, only two other people are quoted in the entire 1,500-word article. One is the Facebook open letter of billionaire Nets owner Joe Tsai, who took it upon himself to speak for 1.4 billion Chinese citizens when he said that they “stand united when it comes to the territorial integrity of China and the country’s sovereignty over her homeland. This issue is non-negotiable.” The other quotes came from a guy named Sourabh Gupta, who is “a senior fellow at the Institute for China-America Studies in Washington, D.C.” While that institution’s name sounds nice and neutral, the organization itself is actually a think tank established to advocate for the Chinese government’s claims to the South China Sea.
Typically, one might see these errors in judgement rebutted in the comments below the article. In this case, though, there is no comment section. Nearly 300 predictably opinionated and decently heated comments on the Vardon story appear to be archived here—they make for a loud if not particularly enjoyable read if you have the time—but presently, The Athletic has shut down the discussion on the site. On Vardon’s article, and two other articles about the NBA in China, The Athletic’s comment sections are completely disabled. Reached for comment, a spokesperson for The Athletic had this explanation.
After closely monitoring the comments section on this particular story, we decided to disable the feature as we believed much of the content to be in direct violation of our Code of Conduct Policy. As a precautionary measure given the highly sensitive nature of the topic, we preemptively disabled the comments section on the other two stories about the same subject. This is not the first time we have disabled comments on a story and have followed a similar approach in the past under similar circumstances.
The Code of Conduct, which the spokesperson included, can be summarized by its headers: “No Assholes. No Hate. No Trolls. No Spam.”
The Athletic’s subscribers aren’t thrilled about this move, and they’re making themselves heard elsewhere on the site. Though readers have been deprived of this particular outlet for their thoughts, comment sections on other Athletic articles—typically a place where 15 people congratulate the reporter on their story—have instead been filled with aggrieved subscribers:
Shutting down a heated comment section is The Athletic’s right—every publication can (and frankly should) moderate its comments to keep out bigots and trolls, if only as a courtesy to readers. But in this particular case, and in the context of the original article, it feels like an oafish and heavy-handed overreaction. To quietly snuff out any direct pushback against a clear reporting mistake—plus any conversation about the Hong Kong protests more generally—is a cowardly move. For a site that likes to advertise its comments as a sparkling oasis of polite debate, short-circuiting this kind of criticism is especially weak.
The good news, however—and trust me, I’ve learned this from experience—is that sports fans will never, ever shut up when they feel like they’ve been denied an opportunity to make their opinions heard. The Athletic’s subscribers will, one way or another, find a way to get these takes off. When you see a furious debate about the one-child policy raging below a puffy profile of Al-Farouq Aminu, now you’ll know why.