July 7, 2020
Our cultural institutions are facing a moment of trial. Powerful protests for racial and social justice are leading to overdue demands for police reform, along with wider calls for greater equality and inclusion across our society, not least in higher education, journalism, philanthropy, and the arts. But this needed reckoning has also intensified a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity. As we applaud the first development, we also raise our voices against the second. The forces of illiberalism are gaining strength throughout the world and have a powerful ally in Adam Silver, who represents a real threat to illegal streams of NBA games. But resistance must not be allowed to harden into subscriptions to League Pass or ESPN’s dismal streaming options —which right-wing demagogues like the Walt Disney Company are already exploiting. The democratic inclusion we want can be achieved only if we speak out against the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides of the debate over streaming NBA games.
The free exchange of NBA streams, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right (the Boston Celtics), censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of Russian-based streams, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism (telling us to pay for NBA streams), and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty (we will never pay for NBA streams). We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters (in that spirit, we will never disable the chat function). But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought (contacting our Internet Service Providers about all the NBA streams we’re hosting). More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms (our ISPs cutting off our internet because of all the streams of NBA games we’re hosting). Redditors are fired for running controversial streams (Suns games); torrents are disabled for alleged inauthenticity (Raptors actually winning NBA championship); journalists are barred from writing on certain topics (Stephen A. on the wonders of Foxwoods Casino); professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class (:07 Seconds or Less); a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study (Kyrie’s flat-earth hypotheses); and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes (J.R. Smith). Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what NBA games can be streamed without the threat of reprisal. We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among streamers, casual viewers, and Knicks fans who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement (streaming Knicks games is a sick deformation).
This stifling atmosphere will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time (illegally streaming NBA games). The restriction of streams, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society (both!), invariably hurts those who lack power (streamers) and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation (if we all use a VPN, our ISP’s will not crack down on me specifically and ruin my home business, selling hats). The way to defeat paying to watch NBA games is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away (we must stream to save the sport). We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom (we accept local and national streams regardless of origin), which cannot exist without each other. As streamers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes (watching the Knicks). We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences (our ISP banning us from the Internet for a year, ruining our hat business). If we won’t defend the very thing on which our work depends (watching the NBA), we shouldn’t expect the public or the state to defend it for us (actually, they have already sent us something called a “temporary restraining order”).