Adam Silver is in a tough spot.
Hold on: this isn’t the beginning of a full-throated defense of the NBA. The league’s initial reaction to Daryl Morey’s tweet supporting Hong Kong’s fight for freedom was awkward, to say the least. The NBA’s statement was a word salad, requiring several readings to get any kind of grasp on a position.
Offending NBA fans in China was “regrettable?” Morey didn’t get busted peeing off the Great Wall. The Rockets GM tweeted his support for Hong Kong’s freedom, something much of the world—including the U.S.—supports. Gregg Popovich once called Donald Trump a “soulless coward.” You didn’t see a statement apologizing to millions of conservatives coming from Olympic Tower.
Or “the values of the league support individuals’ educating themselves and sharing their views on matters important to them.” That one took a quadruple take. You can read that as the NBA supporting Morey’s right to weigh in. You can also squint at the words “educating themselves” and see it as the league’s way of passively suggesting that perhaps Morey waded into a conversation he didn’t fully understand.
Joe Tsai understands it. Tsai was born in Taiwan, was educated in the United States and spent many of his formative years in China. He’s also the co-founder of e-commerce monolith Alibaba, which is the only line on his resume here that matters. The company was valued at $550 billion in 2015, with Tsai worth a cool $9.5 billion because of it. Tsai called the Hong Kong-China relationship a “third-rail issue.” Actually, he called Hong Kong’s “separatist movement” — a phrase straight out of a Chinese government talking point—a third-rail issue. He recounted China’s history with foreign occupiers, adding that “Chinese psyche has heavy baggage when it comes to any threat, foreign or domestic, to carve up Chinese territories.”
Never, not once, did Tsai address that the most recent clash was sparked by an extradition bill that would have allowed suspects to be sent for trial in mainland China. Never, not once, did Tsai address the fact that protesters are fighting for China to keep the promise it made in 1997, when the British gave the city back to China: To allow a “high degree of autonomy,” guaranteeing Hong Kong free speech and a free press, capitalist markets and English common law under a “one country, two systems” agreement. Never, not once, did Tsai address how China’s murky legal system and long history of human rights abuses might make Hong Kong reluctant to be fully subsumed.
As Ben Rhodes, Barack Obama’s former Deputy National Security Advisor, told SI.com, “the basic human rights of the people of Hong Kong are at stake.”
This is the sticky wicket Silver stepped into, and this is why it was so important for him to connect on his second attempt to address it.
And he did.
In a new statement, Silver 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. We simply could not operate that way.” Later, to reporters, Silver said he understands that there are consequences to the kind of comments Morey made and “we will have to live with those consequences.” He called CCTV’s decision not to air Thursday’s preseason game between the Nets and Lakers “unfortunate” but added that “if that’s the consequence of us adhering to our values, we still feel it’s critically important to adhere to those values.”
And that’s it. There’s nothing else to say. There’s nothing else Silver can say. He can’t please everyone. He shouldn’t try. SI’s Rohan Nadkarni suggested the NBA should cut ties with China. With respect to my podcast pal, that’s ridiculous. China didn’t Jack Bauer Morey—they are refusing to cover him or the team he works for. Tencent isn’t dumping the NBA—they are just declining to show Rockets games. China is a brutal, authoritarian government but should we hold the NBA to standards we don’t hold Apple and Abercrombie? Russia attempted to undermine the U.S. election in 2016—should the NBA sever all attempts to grow the game there? Turkey has been hunting Celtics center Enes Kanter for years for the high crime of criticizing Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Twitter. The NBA has played exhibition games in Turkey and a developing fan base there.
It’s a slippery slope.
Players and coaches will be pressured to take a position on the controversy, but spare me the calls that they have to. Yes, NBA players' bank accounts benefit from keeping China happy—many top players make offseason visits to China to promote new sneaker lines—but they have no obligation to have an opinion on any of this. Weighing in on California’s battle against the NCAA doesn’t compel you to pick sides in a decades-old territorial dispute. Criticizing Trump for policies you feel passionate about doesn’t mean you’re duty-bound to wear FREE HONG KONG tee shirts in layup lines.
Ask yourself this: Last week, did you have a strong opinion on the Hong Kong conflict?
Did you have any?
Should athletes be held to a different standard?
Silver cleaned up the NBA’s first statement and has declared the NBA willing to live with the fallout. And there will be fallout. The Rockets will lose money. The NBA will lose money. It’s unclear how far China will be willing to take this. The NBA has some leverage. China can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube, either. It’s a basketball-mad country with hundreds of millions of youths playing the game and millions more watching it. Ban the NBA, and there will be backlash. And while the NBA will miss the Chinese cash, they can certainly live without it.
The NBA is standing up to China in the way few U.S. businesses have, and should be commended for it. Morey won’t be fired, sanctioned and by next spring will be explaining this bonkers story to a packed house at MIT’s Sloan Conference. It took a couple tries, but the NBA has done the right thing.
But, seriously, Adam—stay out of Freedonia.