That is not meant to minimize the laudable efforts the NBA has made to promote diversity, empower its employees to speak freely, champion gender equity and support gay rights. But it is a business above all, a multibillion-dollar powerhouse. While it has a heart and listens to its conscience, it is no less concerned with the bottom line than its peers. You cannot praise it as America’s most progressive sports league without acknowledging that is a tricky thing to be known for and a difficult reputation to uphold.
You have seen why over the past few days as the league has stepped in the manure of a geopolitical controversy in China, struggled to determine the proper way to handle it, endured criticism for perceived hypocrisy and ultimately returned to its moral principles. In less than a week, the NBA has been stunned, soft, clumsy and redemptive in addressing a tweet sent by Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey that supported pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.
After the league initially expressed regret about Morey’s actions and left the impression of an apology, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has clarified the league’s position and refused to back down amid increased pressure from the Chinese government and businesses to make an example of Morey.
“It is inevitable that people around the world — including from America and China — will have different viewpoints over different issues,” Silver said in a statement Tuesday. “It is not the role of the NBA to adjudicate those differences. 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. We simply could not operate that way.”
It took the NBA a few days to get on the right side of this controversy, partly because it’s such a bizarre issue from an American perspective. We’re free to run our mouths about anything, and this freedom of speech has been exercised to the fullest in recent years. But usually, we are discussing domestic conflicts. That approach doesn’t translate well when the GM of the most popular NBA team in China makes reference to Chinese policies, challenging its communist beliefs and taking on perhaps its most sensitive issue in a short Twitter message.
Morey’s tweet read: “Fight For Freedom. Stand With Hong Kong.”
From the American view, Hong Kong protesters are fighting for their human rights and to protect the integrity of a “one country, two systems” agreement with China. But the Chinese government labels it a “separatist movement.”
Morey offended China so much that it wants to hurt the Rockets and the entire NBA as much as it can financially. The timing of this is particularly awful, with the NBA arriving in China for exhibition games, which Chinese broadcasters will no longer televise. Some businesses have pulled Rockets merchandise. The Chinese Basketball Association, led by Hall of Famer Yao Ming, is now at odds with the NBA; Silver characterized Yao as “extremely hot” over the dispute. Other companies are considering minimizing or abandoning their relationships with the NBA.
A harsh reaction was inevitable. So was the NBA’s attempt at damage control to protect the hundreds of millions of dollars it receives from China’s fascination with basketball. Such diplomacy angered some fans back home, with many questioning the moral worth of being so tied financially to China. If people were disappointed that the NBA was acting like any other business, well, that’s exactly what it is.
It’s rather naive to think a company selling a product will overextend itself, for no monetary reason, to solve some of the world’s most challenging problems. That’s why I cautioned celebration of the NBA as our most progressive sports league. That’s why it is jumbo-shrimp praise. The NBA isn’t in the business of progressivism. However, it does a commendable job of aligning a good portion of its interests with the passions of its workforce.
Let’s draw a quick comparison to athletes speaking out and protesting during the Black Lives Matter movement. Like the NFL, the NBA was adamant about players not making any demonstrations during the national anthem. In fact, the NBA has a clear and strong policy prohibiting such actions. Unlike the NFL, players didn’t revolt because they knew they had something more important: the commissioner’s ear and support.
Throughout his five years in charge, Silver has been a well-liked leader because he is a skilled diplomat. He is thoughtful. He listens. He values relationships. Nine times out of 10, he seems to do the right thing for the right reasons. His interpersonal approach means much to holding together a sprawling league undergoing a globalization.
The more the NBA engages with the rest of the world, the more complicated NBA business will become. This is, by far, the most tenuous situation Silver has had to manage. And it won’t be his last one.
But he found the proper tone in reacting to China, which has taken its outrage to ludicrous levels. The NBA showed remorse; China wants Silver to punish Morey in a manner that scares the league’s mouth shut. It’s not going to happen.
“The fact that we have apologized to fans in China is not inconsistent with supporting someone’s right to have a point of view,” Silver said this week.
In his statement, Silver elaborated: “We recognize that our two countries have different political systems and beliefs. And like many global brands, we bring our business to places with different political systems around the world. But for those who question our motivation, this is about far more than growing our business.”
Morey’s tweet will wind up costing the NBA tons of money. But when pressed like never before, Silver didn’t budge on any of the NBA’s core values. It’s fair to criticize him for taking some time to get it right, but he has banked more than enough equity to be pardoned.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.
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