With preseason basketball underway, the National Basketball Association is excited to talk about anything and everything not related to their business in China. Like all companies interested in making money in the Chinese market, the NBA finds itself in the tough position of not wanting to seem like inhumane proponents of totalitarian oppression while still wanting the huge revenue streams an unimpeded Chinese basketball fanbase brings. Recently, the NBA has had to walk this morally devoid line over social media posts by NBA personnel supporting the Hong Kong protestors.
NBA stars James Harden and Russell Westbrook were at a routine press conference Wednesday, when a CNN sports reporter, Christina Macfarlane, asked, “The NBA has always been a league that prides itself on its players and coaches being able to speak out openly about political and societal affairs. I just wonder after the events of this week, and the fallout we’ve seen, whether you would both feel differently about speaking out in that way in the future?” At this point, a spokesperson for the league tells Macfarlane that they are “taking basketball questions only.” Macfarlane argues that it is a legitimate question as it is the big NBA news of this past week, to which the spokesperson replied that the question was already answered.
To bring you up to speed on October 4, Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey tweeted out the statement “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong.” A clear statement of support for protestors in Hong Kong, fighting anti-democratic oppression. Morey quickly deleted the tweet, and since China has banned Twitter, no one in China could see the tweet, but the damage was done. The Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta tweeted out, “Listen….@dmorey does NOT speak for the @HoustonRockets. Our presence in Tokyo is all about the promotion of the @NBA internationally and we are NOT a political organization.”
The Chinese Basketball Association announced a couple of days later that it would be suspending its cooperation with the Rockets organization. This news was followed by an announcement from both China’s sports network and their online streaming platform saying Houston Rockets games would not air or stream for the time being. An important note here: an estimated 10 percent of the NBA’s revenues are derived out of the Chinese market.
The following day the NBA released a public statement saying “While Daryl has made it clear that his tweet does not represent the Rockets or the NBA, the values of the league support individuals educating themselves and sharing their views on matters important to them. We have great respect for the history and culture of China and hope that sports and the NBA can be used as a unifying force to bridge cultural divides and bring people together.” This led to criticisms from everywhere, which resulted in NBA Commissioner Adam Silver releasing a second statement arguing that “growing our business” wasn’t the principal reason for its prostration to Chinese business interests.
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.
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.
I guess, that wasn’t entirely true? Maybe Silver will give us a third statement about how things are complicated, and at least the NBA doesn’t punish people for promoting racial justice at home.