The National Basketball Association (NBA) is kowtowing to the Communist Chinese government that will tolerate no criticism. However, Wisconsin Congressman Mike Gallagher (R-WI8) says standing up for free speech should be a slam dunk for the league.

Gallagher teamed-up with Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE) asked the NBA in a letter to take a series of steps to let China know that the league will not let the world’s most populous nation, a $4 billion market for the NBA according to Reuters, dictate what the employees of the league can say about Hong Kong. Gallagher and Sasse were joined by Reps. Jim Banks (R-IN), Tom Malinowski (D-NJ) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), and Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR), Tom Cotton (R-AR), and Ted Cruz (R-TX).

The dispute between the league and the Chinese government began when Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey posted on Twitter his support for the protestors in Hong Kong. Morey was forced to apologize by the league for offending the Chinese government.

In the letter, Gallagher criticizes the NBA sharply for caving in to Chinese pressure.

“It is outrageous that the Chinese Communist Party is using its economic power to suppress the speech of Americans inside the United States. It is also outrageous that the NBA has caved to Chinese government demands for contrition,” Gallagher and his colleagues wrote. “We are deeply concerned that individuals associated with the league may now engage in self-censorship that is inconsistent with American and the league’s stated values—and that this incident will only encourage further intimidation of American companies and persons by the Chinese government.”

The letter also challenges the NBA to live up to its own stated policy of supporting free speech on political issues.

“NBA players have a rich history of speaking out on sensitive topics of social justice and human rights inside the United States, and the NBA takes pride in defending their right to do so,” Gallagher and his colleagues wrote. “Yet while it is easy to defend freedom of speech when it costs you nothing, equivocating when profits are at stake is a betrayal of fundamental American values.”

Gallagher and his fellow members of Congress also express concern about the precedent that was set by the NBA’s behavior.

“Unless American businesses aggressively confront this intimidation campaign, the Chinese government will increasingly punish free speech outside China’s borders, Gallagher and his colleagues wrote. “The most common method is to threaten access to the growing Chinese domestic market for any international company or organization that criticizes, or allows its employees to criticize, Chinese government policies. If not resisted, this pressure could result in American and multinational companies making employment conditional on silence regarding topics deemed sensitive by the Chinese Communist Party.”

The letter lists four steps the NBA should take to reassert its support for free speech:

  • Build upon your statement of October 8 in which you said “the NBA will not put itself in a position of regulating what players, employees, and team owners say or will not say on these issues” by clarifying that (a) NBA players, staff, partners, and fans in the United States are American persons—as such, you support their right to express their opinions no matter the economic consequences, and (b) while the NBA will follow Chinese law in China, the Chinese Communist Party must respect that the association will abide by American laws and principles in its global operations, including by not conditioning employment on any guidelines of expression on international political issues.
  • Suspend NBA activities in China until government-controlled broadcasters and government-controlled commercial sponsors end their boycott of NBA activities and the selective treatment of the Houston Rockets, and emphasize that the association will stand unified in the face of future efforts by Chinese government-controlled entities to single out individual teams, players, or associates for boycotts or selective treatment.
  • Reevaluate the NBA’s training camp in Xinjiang, where up to a million Chinese citizens are held in concentration camps as part of a massive, government-run campaign of ethno-religious repression.
  • Clarify in internal association documents that public commentary on international human rights repression—including in Tibet, Hong Kong, and Xinjiang—falls within expected standards of public behavior and expression.

The letter was a released a day before sportswear company Nike announced it was pulling Houston Rockets athletic wear from its store shelves in China. Nike is also a major sponsor of former National Football League player Colin Kaepernick who is attempting to make a comeback after leaving the league under a cloud for starting player protests during the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner before games.

President Donald Trump has also weighed in on the NBA-China controversy by criticizing a couple of NBA coaches who have been outspoken in the past on public policy issues.

“I watched the way that [Golden State Warriors coach Steve] Kerr and [San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg] Popovich and some of the others were pandering to China, and yet to our own country, it’s like they don’t respect it,” Trump said in an interview with CNBC.

Trump himself recently congratulated the Chinese Communist government on its 70th anniversary and has been largely silent on the subject of Hong Kong. Trump has maintained a conciliatory tone with China during the two nations’ trade dispute.

The full text of the letter is below:

Commissioner Adam Silver
National Basketball Association
645 5th Ave
New York, NY 10022

Commissioner Silver,

We are writing to express our deep concern about the NBA’s and Houston Rockets’ recent statements apologizing for Rockets GM Daryl Morey’s tweet in support of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protestors. It is outrageous that the Chinese Communist Party is using its economic power to suppress the speech of Americans inside the United States. It is also outrageous that the NBA has caved to Chinese government demands for contrition. We are deeply concerned that individuals associated with the league may now engage in self-censorship that is inconsistent with American and the league’s stated values—and that this incident will only encourage further intimidation of American companies and persons by the Chinese government.

We are aware that the NBA has a lucrative and longstanding market in China. As such, your corporate due diligence would have noted that the Chinese government has systematically used international business partnerships to stifle opinions with which it disagrees. The NBA should have anticipated the challenges of doing business in a country run by a repressive single party government—including by being prepared to stand in strong defense of the freedom of expression of its employees, players, and affiliates across the globe.

NBA players have a rich history of speaking out on sensitive topics of social justice and human rights inside the United States, and the NBA takes pride in defending their right to do so. Yet while it is easy to defend freedom of speech when it costs you nothing, equivocating when profits are at stake is a betrayal of fundamental American values.

Worse, your statements come at a time when we would hope to see Americans standing up and speaking out in defense of the rights of the people of Hong Kong. The NBA’s initial statement, and pressure placed on Mr. Morey to back away from his statement, has not only sold out an American citizen. It reinforces the Chinese Communist Party view that those who point to Chinese repression in Hong Kong are at best stating opinions, not facts, and that the official Chinese government view deserves equal respect. Hundreds of millions of people within China will read your statements as an admission that their government’s propaganda is correct; millions of people in Hong Kong will be dispirited. That you have more potential fans in China than in Hong Kong is no excuse for bending over backwards to express “sensitivity” only to one side.

Unless American businesses aggressively confront this intimidation campaign, the Chinese government will increasingly punish free speech outside China’s borders. The most common method is to threaten access to the growing Chinese domestic market for any international company or organization that criticizes, or allows its employees to criticize, Chinese government policies. If not resisted, this pressure could result in American and multinational companies making employment conditional on silence regarding topics deemed sensitive by the Chinese Communist Party. This is an outcome that Americans reject, and one that you should reject – especially given that the NBA represents a unique brand for which there is no competition, inside or outside China. You have more power to take a stand than most of the Chinese government’s targets and should have the courage and integrity to use it. It’s not unreasonable to expect American companies to put our fundamental democratic rights ahead of profit — the very rights that have fostered their success and our nation’s wealth.

Therefore, we urge you to take the following steps:

  1. Build upon your statement of October 8 in which you said “the NBA will not put itself in a position of regulating what players, employees, and team owners say or will not say on these issues” by clarifying that (a) NBA players, staff, partners, and fans in the United States are American persons—as such, you support their right to express their opinions no matter the economic consequences, and (b) while the NBA will follow Chinese law in China, the Chinese Communist Party must respect that the association will abide by American laws and principles in its global operations, including by not conditioning employment on any guidelines of expression on international political issues.
  2. Suspend NBA activities in China until government-controlled broadcasters and government-controlled commercial sponsors end their boycott of NBA activities and the selective treatment of the Houston Rockets, and emphasize that the association will stand unified in the face of future efforts by Chinese government-controlled entities to single out individual teams, players, or associates for boycotts or selective treatment.
  3. Reevaluate the NBA’s training camp in Xinjiang, where up to a million Chinese citizens are held in concentration camps as part of a massive, government-run campaign of ethno-religious repression.
  4. Clarify in internal association documents that public commentary on international human rights repression—including in Tibet, Hong Kong, and Xinjiang—falls within expected standards of public behavior and expression.