• Pope Francis praised NBA players for their social justice advocacy during a Monday morning private audience at the Vatican.
  • “You’re champions,” Pope Francis reportedly told the players. 
  • Both the NBA and Pope Francis have been criticized for their co-operation and close ties to China despite China’s human rights abuses. 

Pope Francis praised NBA players for their social justice advocacy during a Monday morning private audience at the Vatican.

Several officials from the NBA went with a delegation of five NBA players to attend an “unprecedented meeting” with the Holy Father to discuss advocacy work Monday, ESPN reported.

Pope Francis’s assistant had reached out to the players’ association last week about the meeting, prompting the players’ union to quickly schedule an overnight flight on Sunday to Rome, according to the publication.

The delegation from the NBA included NBA players’ union executive director Michele Roberts and players Kyle Korver, Sterling Brown, Johnathan Isaac, Marco Belinelli and Anthony Toliver, according to ESPN. The group brought gifts to the pope, including a basketball, a book highlighting the players’ social justice efforts, and an Orlando Magic Jersey, ESPN reported.

“You’re champions,” Pope Francis reportedly told the players. “But also giving the example of teamwork, you’ve become a model, giving that good example of teamwork but always remaining humble … and preserving your own humanity.”

The pope’s praise appears to refer to the NBA’s messaging on racism and police brutality: many NBA players have worn the messages “Say Their Names” or “Equality” or “Black Lives Matter” on their jerseys and almost every NBA player and coach have knelt during the national anthem before the games, according to ESPN.

The NBA has drawn criticism for both its refusal to criticize China, despite the country’s human rights abuses, as well as the NBA’s close ties to the country. Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey tweeted his support for pro-Democracy demonstrations in China in 2019, a tweet that ignited a firestorm for the NBA.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement that it is “inevitable that people around the world — including from America and China — will have different viewpoints over different issues” noting that “it is not the role of the NBA to adjudicate those differences.”

In response to these statements, all of the NBA’s official partner companies in China suspended their relationships with the league and China stopped airing NBA games. It was not until October of this year that the country began airing NBA games again.

Pope Francis has also been criticized for his relationship with China.

The pope caused widespread confusion among Catholics when he agreed to recognize bishops appointed by the authoritarian Chinese government in 2018, an agreement ending a decade-long power struggle between the Chinese government and the Catholic Church on whether the Chinese government has the power to appoint Catholic bishops.

Under the conditions of the deal, Pope Francis recognized the legitimacy of seven bishops selected and appointed by the authoritarian Chinese government — the same Chinese government that has persecuted Christians for decades, particularly after Communists took control of China in 1949. Led by Catholic bishops appointed by past popes, Chinese Catholics have practiced their faith through underground churches to avoid arrest.

Francis’s agreement with China caused widespread confusion among faithful Catholics and Catholic leaders, many of whom quickly denounced the deal. The former archbishop of Hong Kong, Cardinal Joseph Zen, called the agreement “an incredible betrayal,” adding that “a church enslaved by the government is no real Catholic Church.”

“If I were a cartoonist I would draw the Holy Father on his knees offering the keys of the kingdom of heaven to President Xi Jinping and saying, ‘Please recognize me as the pope,’” Zen wrote in 2018.

The Vatican did not immediately respond to a request for comment from the Daily Caller News Foundation.

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