The NBA has enjoyed a progressive reputation, especially in contrast to the more conservative NFL. Commissioner Adam Silver supports causes and tolerates speech in cases where it would be hard to see the NFL and commissioner Roger Goodell doing the same. The NBA pulled the 2017 All-Star game out of Charlotte over North Carolina’s controversial “bathroom bill,” formally known as House Bill 2, which discriminated against LGBTQ+ individuals. The NBA removed a long-standing team owner for racist comments surreptitiously recorded by his mistress. And the NBA leadership doesn’t have a problem with some of its most well-known coaches and players criticizing national leadership and policies. It would be hard to picture the NFL having similar reactions in any of these spaces.
Now, however, the NBA appears to be occupying a difference space in the face of a geopolitical crisis. After Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey sent a tweet supporting the civil liberties of demonstrators in Hong Kong and, well, freedom, he has been left twisting in the word with nary a word of support from the league.
The NBA, cognizant of the massive present and future business opportunities in China, immediately responded that Morey’s comments were “regrettable.” Silver has since walked back that stance, which drew the wrath of his Chinese partners in the process—games between the Nets and Lakers were not televised by Chinese TV, billboards promoting the games were taken down, and NBA Cares events in Shanghai were canceled.
However Silver’s immediate rebuke of Morey lingers, setting the tone for the entire league. No one came to Morey’s defense, choosing to punt on the issue when asked. And when LeBron James finally addressed the scandal Monday night, he expressed an anti-Morey sentiment, saying Morey was “misinformed” and could have “harmed people, not only financially but physically, emotionally, spiritually.”
I can understand players and coaches not wanting to comment on this issue, whether due to not being informed or under an implicit gag order. However the problem with the NBA is that it now presents as a company where players and coaches speak willingly on political issues when it is “safe” to do so, yet clam up when it is bad for business. The NBA’s and its coaches/players’ response to Morey has been something we would expect from the NFL, not the NBA, and LeBron’s comments are essentially saying that Morey should “stick to sports,” a different message than we have seen and heard from NBA leadership and players.
Even for the NBA, “staying woke” has its limits.
NFL leadership and owners would never admit it publicly, but they have to be smugly watching the NBA’s divergence from its progressive position.
In 2017 NFL owners joined arms with players in the immediate aftermath of President Trump’s “son of a bitch” comments toward Colin Kaepernick, as he knelt during the national anthem to raise awareness about social injustices. Yet that progressive stance didn’t last, and owners took steps to remove politics from their narrative. Indeed, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones even warned players of team fines if they did not stand at attention during the national anthem.
To be fair, NFL owners did invite players into their meetings and have been social causes through the Players Coalition, yet that partnership has been roundly criticized by the “Kaepernick contingent” including, most vocally, Eric Reid. And as quarterbacks with no track record are now starting for NFL teams, Kaepernick remains unsigned.
While the NBA has immersed itself in some tricky political waters—whether it be LGBTQ+ rights, legalized gambling, racial inequalities, etc—the NFL has largely stayed in its conservative lane. And President Trump, who has been criticized by NBA players and coaches with impunity, counts several NFL owners, and a few NFL coaches and players, among his friends. Indeed, when I asked one NFL team president about this NBA-China episode, he said candidly, “Right or wrong, that would never happen in our world.”
THE FACES OF THE LEAGUE
Goodell presents as corporate, scripted and completely unrevealing. In stark contrast, Silver presents as open, honest and transparent. A part of the contrast is natural instinct, but part of that, I believe, is by design.
Behind Goodell’s sometimes-robotic facade is a more human and vulnerable person—a side of himself I think he should show more of as does, well, Silver. Yet, I believe his constituency, the NFL owners, do not want him to appear vulnerable. They want an iron-jawed leader always in control, even if bland in the process. A part of Goodell's job description is to take the bullets from fans, media and players so that owners don’t have to, and he does it well.
Silver was barely hired when then-Clippers owner Donald Sterling was taped making racist comments, which caused a player revolt. Silver led a forced exit of Sterling that pleased both players and owners, whose franchise values were raised considerably with a $2 billion price tag for the Clippers. Silver’s popularity and progressive reputation, have continued since, as he continues to wade into spaces other commissioners do not. Silver rode on a float in the Gay Pride parade with Jason Collins. He wrote an op-ed in The New York Times advocating for legalized sports betting four years before the Supreme Court agreed with him. He had spoke candidly and publicly about the troubled mental health of NBA players.
The NBA-China issue, however, serves to diminish distinctions between the NBA and NFL and the two commissioners.
MORE ALIKE THAN DIFFERENT
Although Silver has walked back his initial “regrettable” comment, the conspicuous silence from coaches and players has shown the NBA to be what the NFL makes no apologies about being: business first, the rest follows.
As NFL owners continue to ostracize Kaepernick and support conservative causes, the league is as popular as ever and business is booming. And the NBA’s silence on China’s attitude towards civil rights will draw criticism from many corners, but it will ultimately be good for their business.
The NBA-China imbroglio, as international an incident as an American sports league can have, has proven this about the two most popular sports leagues in this country: they are more alike than different.
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