But the NBA maintained its preseason games in China scheduled to tip off Thursday. Like nothing happened.
At least until it was discovered that Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey retweeted a slogan in support of those demonstrating in Hong Kong.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, who last year counted a Chinese audience 2.5 times that of the U.S. population watch his league’s games on TV, tablet or smartphone, issued an apology to any offended Chinese, such as Joseph Tsai, the billionaire co-founder of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba and owner of the Brooklyn Nets. Tsai wrote on Facebook: “The hurt that this incident has caused will take a long time to repair.”
Chinese sponsors of Morey’s team pulled their advertisements. Chinese broadcasters said they wouldn’t show Rockets games. The Chinese Basketball Association, headed by former Rockets star and Chinese legend Yao Ming, announced it was suspending its relationship with Ming’s former team.
But no one, other than Morey, championed those in Hong Kong protesting for their self-determination. And Morey abruptly deleted his tweet.
It was the latest reminder that the notion of sport as being fearless on the front lines of social change is more fallacy than reality. It doesn’t so often challenge the status quo, no matter how scurrilous, as embrace it. It should be remembered that the original big sports in this country — horse racing, boxing and baseball — racially segregated themselves in accordance with Jim Crow laws rather than fight the apartheid system those laws inflicted.
And when billions of dollars are involved, as with the case of the NBA and China, the blindness is even more complete.
“If the NBA had no business in China, I’m sure it would probably be saluting Daryl Morey as a human rights advocate,” said Robert McChesney, a University of Illinois media scholar who critiques media’s intersection with politics and, with a brief background as a sportswriter, wrote a brilliant Marxist analysis of sportswriting’s history. “I mean, here’s a guy standing up on principle for basic civil liberties and decency, whatever you think of the issue.
“But the money is just so astronomical, you can buy someone for that sort of money, clearly.”
That is what China did. It purchased whatever soul the NBA had. It bought off a league many observers thought in recent years was some sort of paragon to progressivism despite evidence to the contrary, such as its owners’ historical preference of supporting Republican presidential candidates over Democratic hopefuls.
NBA onlookers from the left of the political gauge gave the league a pass for having a written rule requiring its players to stand for the national anthem while they criticized the NFL for considering to implement one. They overlooked that when WNBA players, who play under the NBA’s auspices, protested against police lethality against unarmed black men, the league fined the women until public pressure persuaded it to rescind the penalties. Although longtime Clippers owner Donald Sterling was infamous as this country’s biggest offender of fair housing laws, the supposedly enlightened didn’t call for his ouster until he was discovered sharing bigoted beliefs with his mistress.
“It’s easy to be progressive on civil rights issues when 80 percent of your players are African American,” McChesney observed. “Let’s face it, if you’re a white supremacist, you’re probably not an NBA fan. So you’re dealing with a fan base . . . that’s very liberal. It’d be a tougher sell if you went into other fan bases to try and do that. The courage factor would be more impressive if NASCAR did it.”
But the league that stood up for LeBron James when reactionary media pundits argued he should shut up and dribble, rather than stand up and protest, effectively told Morey this week to sit down and manage after he spoke up to tyranny. Morey complied.
It was disingenuous at best on the NBA’s part and cowardly at worst.
To be sure, Turkish NBA center Enes Kanter on Monday tweeted apparent support for Morey. It was significant because Kanter long has voiced sharp rebukes of Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has cracked down on dissidents and journalists and cast such a shadow over his opposition, such as Kanter, that Kanter refused to travel to Europe last season with his team out of fear of being kidnapped by Erdogan’s forces.
At the time, Silver, the NBA commissioner, said: “We live in a world where these are issues that he is dealing with. And I recognize that for the NBA, because we’re a global business, we have to pay attention to these issues as well.”
The NBA doesn’t have a billion-dollar tie to Turkey as it does to China. Maybe if it did, Kanter wouldn’t feel so comfortable with his employer. On Tuesday, Silver again sought to claim some middle ground.
“It is inevitable that people around the world — including from America and China — will have different viewpoints over different issues. It is not the role of the NBA to adjudicate those differences,” he said. “However, 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.”
While that seemed to be supportive of the rights of NBA employees, it ignored the considerable influence the league could wield if it chose to.
“The NBA is a uniquely positioned sports league,” McChesney, an avowed NBA addict, pointed out. “Basketball in the course of the last 40 years and continuing in the next 40 years is the second-most-popular team sport internationally. In soccer, you have five or six countries that have first-division teams and are roughly equal financially. But in basketball you only have one first division, the NBA. So the NBA is going to have all the best players in the world.”
That means the NBA can dominate the global basketball market, and the most lucrative mine is in China, where basketball has been part of the country since Mao Zedong promoted the game as an expression of communism’s goals.
The revenue China’s market can provide NBA owners has helped drive the valuation of NBA franchises to the billion-dollar mark and beyond.
But that also suggests the leverage of the league. It is something coveted beyond U.S. borders and therefore, one could surmise, has the power to effect change. After all, sports’ ostracizing of South African athletics starting in the 1960s, led by athlete-turned-writer Dennis Brutus, aided the fight against apartheid.
“If the NBA said, ‘Daryl Morey, you’re absolutely right. We’re cutting off China until they respect human rights in Hong Kong. We know it’s billions of dollars, but we have to stand up for something,’ then you would say, ‘Wow. This is unbelievable. This is a sign of courage and principle we’ve not seen from an American commercial enterprise operating in China,’” McChesney said. “Then you’d give them the Nobel Peace Prize.”
But that’s fantasy, not actuality.
Kevin B. Blackistone, ESPN panelist and visiting professor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, writes sports commentary for The Washington Post.