Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted something the Chinese government didn’t like, and the NBA has spent much of the past week bending over backwards to express profound regret to all of its great friends in China who might have been offended.
Why? Simple. NBA China alone is worth more than $4 billion. It is estimated more than 500 million Chinese regularly consume NBA content. This is American basketball’s richest global partnership, one developed over three decades.
But it is an uneasy alliance, one with a dark side — one this controversy has laid bare. And that’s good.
The NBA would tell you that, beyond being enriched by the business arrangement, its relationship with China helps build global bridges and bring the world closer.
But the relationship also is this: It is a major, immensely popular U.S. sport lending credibility to China — to everything China stands for.
Think of it this way: You know how the NFL loves playing games in London every year? Would they still be doing that if Great Britain was notoriously known for systemic human rights violations?
But it’s OK for the NBA to do that? And then lamely allude to “political differences?”
The NBA and commissioner Adam Silver have earned their reputation as our most progressive league, from bouncing racist owner Donald Sterling to moving its all-star game over Charlotte’s anti-transgender laws to encouraging players’ social activism and expression.
The league’s cozy alliance with China is at odds with all of that.
This is the current Human Rights Watch synopsis of NBA-favorite China:
“China remains a one-party authoritarian state that systematically curbs fundamental rights. The government has arbitrarily detained and prosecuted hundreds of activists and human rights lawyers and defenders. It has tightened control over non-governmental organizations, activists, media and the internet through a slew of new laws that cast activism and peaceful criticism as state security threats. In 2016 the government abducted and forcibly disappeared several critics in Hong Kong and other countries. The government’s highly oppressive rule in the ethnic minority regions of Xinjiang and Tibet persists. Despite legislation to protect against custodial torture, the practice remains widespread.”
One small example of the odd juxtaposition of the NBA’s involvement in China: The league has run a basketball academy in Xinjiang, where China runs a highly intrusive surveillance state has detained a reported one million Turkic Muslims for forced indoctrination.
It’s almost as if, in exchange for the business windfall, the NBA is OK being used as a sort of propaganda tool, one that gives oppressive China a Western stamp of approval.
The international brouhaha began with a Morey tweet expressing support for protesters in Hong Kong demonstrating against a controversial bill that would allow criminal suspects to be extradited from that territory to mainland China — protests that have since morphed into pro-democracy rallies.
The tweet was strongly perceived as critical by Chinese officials — even as the NBA was preparing to stage preseason events there.
The backlash has been fast, and significant.
Sportswear brand Li-Ning, whose prominent clients include recently retired Miami Heat star Dwyane Wade, announced it would suspend business ties with the league.
The NBA’s digital partner in China said it would suspend relations with the Rockets.
The Chinese Basketball Association canceled planned exhibitions against . NBA G League affiliates.
An NBA Cares event in Shanghai was canceled.
CCTV, Chinese state television, said it would not air Rockets games in China.
A Lakers-Nets preseason game planned Thursday in Shanghai was still on as of Wednesday, but related media sessions have been canceled, and there is speculation fans might be discouraged from attending.
The controversy is magnified because the Rockets are the most popular NBA team in China, with Chinese basketball god Yao Ming having spent his whole NBA career in Houston.
As far as I can tell Morey deserves a parade. Or at least a raise.
Instead his tweet was quickly deleted, he offered his regrets, his team owner apologized and star player James Harden did, too — all so as not to jeopardize the NBA’s business deal with one of the biggest human-rights-violating countries on earth.
There is even talk the surest resolution to this mess would be firing Morey. But it would blow up in the NBA’s face if Morey were scapegoated — sacrificed — to appease a government that tortures and denies its people civil liberties.
Silver, the poor commissioner, has been caught awkwardly in the middle, sort of supporting Morey’s freedom of expression but also calling it “regrettable” that Morey had “deeply offended” many in China.
Silver, in his biggest test running the league, has neither placated China nor satisfied many U.S. fans who find his support of Morey lukewarm. He has called the league “apologetic” for Morey’s tweet yet backed his right to have said it, playing both sides at once and winning neither.
Silver will be OK if he never wavers on taking the side of freedom of expression.
This major rift will heal itself because China wants the credibility its partnership with the NBA brings every bit as much as the league wants the massive money the relationship provides.
The question is at what cost the NBA wants all that money.
The league can love all its adoring Chinese fans, but the past week has reminded us the NBA is in bed with China’s government, too, and seemingly willing to have blinders on to all of those human rights violations.
That was obvious when the reaction to Morey’s tweet was the league instinctively regretting having offended China, of all governments.
Clearly, the NBA’s morality has a price.