Because nothing in 2019 is surprising anymore, the National Basketball Association—an entity’s popularity predicated on adults forming teams to put an orange sphere through a basket—is embroiled in a geopolitical scandal(???) with the whole-ass country of China(!!!) This is really happening, and while you probably don’t come to Sports Illustrated for hot geopolitical talk (especially when you see my byline), allow me to offer the quickest recap of this situation, because it took yet another turn Tuesday.
This all started when Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, who may one day be looked at as the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of World War III, sent a thoroughly benign tweet (since deleted) about civil rights protests in Hong Kong. Morey’s tweet, “fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong,” is the intellectual equivalent of Little Debbie tweeting “Never Forget” on 9/11, that is, it is the most basic expression of a very uncontroversial ideal—freedom. The fallout from Morey’s comment was swift, however.
Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta distanced Morey’s comments from the organization. The NBA released a weak statement in an attempt to plant themselves on the fence, apologizing to China but stopping short of fully condemning Morey. Meanwhile Morey—as well as Rockets star James Harden, somehow—sensing the business consequences of angering China, also apologized. The begging for forgiveness didn’t help—Chinese online stores pulled Rockets merchandise from their websites, and streaming giant Tencent said it would decline to show Rockets games.
All of that brought us to Tuesday morning, when NBA commissioner Adam Silver—through a press release and conference in Tokyo—offered much more coherent thoughts on the incident. As Chinese state broadcaster CCTV (a little on the nose!) announced it would not air the NBA’s upcoming preseason games in Shanghai and Shenzhen, Silver said the league supports Morey’s right to freedom of expression, and while he hopes to meet with business partners soon in Shanghai to ease concerns, for now at least, Silver says the league will live with the economic consequences of the tweet. Phew.
Silver’s comments Tuesday were a step in the right direction. The speed at which the NBA capitulated to China in the wake of Morey’s tweet was embarrassing. Nets owner Joe Tsai’s lengthy attempted explanation of why Chinese people are particularly sensitive to the situation in Hong Kong conveniently ignored Tsai’s own business interests, the use of propaganda to confuse and misinform the Chinese public, as well mischaracterized the protests in Hong Kong, which stem from overreaching extradition laws.
If your head is spinning a little bit, that’s because the more you attempt to untangle the NBA’s relationship with China, the more moral quandaries you encounter. Morey deleting his tweet was perhaps merely only a public example of the erasure that too often happens when American companies are doing business with China. Even Disney, which basically owns 96% of American corporations, has acquiesced to Chinese political concerns in the past, because apparently there’s a huge difference in how the world works if Avengers: Endgame makes $3 billion as opposed to $2.5 billion.
Silver’s plan moving forward is a little self-serving. He basically wants to Queer Eye the situation, hoping through face-to-face interaction with the NBA’s Chinese partners, he can repair the rift between the two sides, not forcing Morey to apologize while still expressing some level of sympathy, and then both the NBA and China can go on making billions of dollars together while acting like nothing happened. Silver’s plan is basically a hint of diplomacy that’s really about protecting the league’s business interests. But at what cost?
We’ve now seen what China is willing to do over a tweet that, theoretically, most of its public couldn’t even see because Twitter is blocked in the country. This goes beyond the scope of the NBA, and far more intelligent people than me can explain how we’ve gotten here, but globalizing China’s economy has done little to nothing to pull its government closer to Western ideals of democracy. Instead, powerful American companies routinely find themselves bending over backwards for China, because the country has no hesitation in throwing its weight around over even the smallest perceived slight, and the money is too large for shameless capitalists to care about principles.
Adam Silver’s job is to basically put a friendly face on the money-hungry side of the NBA. And he’s done a good job of framing his actions as progressive when they could just as easily be viewed as smart business practices. But continuing the league’s partnership with China in the wake of the Morey incident would be a particularly slippery slope.
The NBA already made a moral sacrifice doing business in a country that oppresses its population. Currently, the league holds training camps at an academy in Xianjiang, the same province in which China is currently interning a million Muslims. Again, Morey’s fiasco is only a public example of how subservient the NBA can be to China. What else don’t we know? What will Silver say in private meetings with partners?
The only way for the NBA to wash its hands of these issues is to completely move out of China altogether. It would be an unpopular move. Both players and owners are dependent on the Chinese market for an economic boost. Fans, too, would probably be a little upset when those salary cap projections came in a little lower because of a decrease in revenue.
But it’s hard to see the cat getting put back in the bag here. It would take yeoman’s work for Silver to somehow capitulate privately while backing Morey publicly. China already asks for too much if it gets upset over a tweet. And it’s not the NBA that should be doing any apologizing or smoothing over after the events that have unfolded. Cutting ties would not only put the pressure back on the Chinese government to bring back something its population has grown to love, it could perhaps more blatantly expose how China is willing to manipulate its people depending on how the split would be framed by the state-run media.
Silver will almost certainly protect the NBA’s business interests in the end, because that’s just the way our rapidly disintegrating world works. After all, he doesn’t work for Morey. He works for guys Fertitta and Tsai, the latter of whom is worth $9.5 billion, and yet he just barely cracks the list of the world’s 150 richest people. As long as China demands zero tolerance, however, the NBA should move to end the relationship, as opposed to widening the scope of its moral sacrifices.