The NBA saw the world coming before anybody. Anybody in North America, at least. The NBA opened its first office in China in 1992. The NFL and Major League Baseball in 2007. The NHL, ever glacial, in April of this year.
But the National Basketball Association saw early that the sport could spread, that it could be sold in places long after North America had been mined as far as anyone could go. The reward has been obvious: 490 million Chinese people watched NBA games on the streaming giant Tencent last year. It’s the league’s biggest non-U.S. partner; they recently signed a new five-year deal.
And then Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey upset everything, with a troubling bout of conscience. He tweeted, “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.” The typhoon started immediately.
Hong Kong was handed from the British back to China in 1997; the clampdown on human rights and civil liberties has been gradual, and exploded this year over an extradition bill. Millions have protested in the streets; the protests have been going on for four months. The Chinese government has escalated violence in an attempt to control the crowds, gradually and in lurches. Morey is one of the NBA’s better and more prominent GMs. He also believes, according to those who know him, in civil liberties.
So he sent the tweet. The Chinese backlash was furious. The Rockets have had strong Chinese ties since Yao Ming played there, but the Chinese Basketball Association suspended its relationship with the Rockets, and Tencent said it would suspend any coverage or streaming of the Rockets, which is bigger. Houston’s Chinese sponsors surely raised hell, too. Morey’s seven words, in support of human rights, became a geopolitical storm.
So the NBA had a choice, at least on paper, if you think of it as anything other than a ruthless multinational conglomerates that come in different colours. The NBA has supported their players on things like gun control issues, systemic oppression of Black people by police, or on dustups with the racist President of the moment. On those issues, the NBA decided to take a side. Here, Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta, whose views are prominently conservative, quickly tweeted that Houston is not a political organization. There were reports Morey’s job was in danger. What would the NBA do?
Grovel, of course. Grovel and beg forgiveness for the temerity of one GM supporting the millions of people fighting for their rights instead of being tear-gassed in Hong Kong. The NBA is progressive in a way that allows them to keep their players happy. Donald Sterling gets thrown out a window once he’s on tape spouting the racism everyone knew he spouted all the time.
But just like sports teams are not your friend, sports leagues are a collection of businesses for whom avarice is the primary connector. Morey had to back down. At an exhibition game in Japan, Rockets star James Harden stood next to Russell Westbrook and said, “We apologize. We love China.” And the NBA wrote a statement that read:
“We recognize that the views expressed by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey have deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China, which is regrettable. 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.”
It was abject surrender to a greater power. “The values of the league support individuals’ educating themselves and sharing their views on matters important to them” is a sentence that must have been crafted by PR professionals sweating like Patrick Ewing, in his impossibly sweaty prime. Matt Schiavenza, the editor of Asia Society, tweeted that the term cultural divide “is designed to please China, which has long sought to portray its authoritarian style of government as intrinsic to its culture and a reason why democracy isn’t suitable for it.”
And in Mandarin, the NBA’s statement apparently read, in part, “Extremely disappointed in Morey’s inappropriate statement. No doubt he’s severely hurt the feelings of (Chinese) fans.’’
As someone said, Communists buy shoes, too. Commissioner Adam Silver spoke to media in Japan and said the league had in fact supported Morey’s rights to free speech and free expression — presumably this is one reason Morey has kept his job — which is not exactly a high bar.
The system is not set up for corporate money to choose principle, so the NBA took a side here, and Silver said he also supported Joe Tsai. Tsai, the Brooklyn Nets owner and the co-founder of Chinese multinational giant Alibaba, released a statement ignoring China’s authoritarianism, but citing China’s reasons to want Hong Kong fully under its control — invoking its history, including the Opium Wars with the British, and the Rape of Nanking. He claimed all 1.4-billion Chinese were united, which is . . . well, the dream of the fascist state.
And he said the real thing: “The NBA is a fan-first league.”
Yes, ESPN pays paid a billion and a half a year to televise the league. Yes, the real estate plays and arena extortion scams are still running. Yes, the next CBA could further dilute the players’ share of the money. Seattle could use a team, and in a fantasy, Vancouver, too. And the product is fun, and great, and a hit with the youngsters. The NBA can still grow in North America.
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But China is a gold mine of another depth, with millions of fans, and also the world’s foremost authoritarian government. China is holding an estimated million ethnic Muslim Uighurs in concentration camps; they are accused of running torture-based re-education programs. Of course, the United States is currently caging migrant children in concentration camps at the border, with profit flowing to American companies. No country is without its sins, Canada included.
But there are differences. The NBA has betrayed a secret: they choose principle until the money’s too good not to. Money eventually colonizes everything, and Daryl Morey’s seven words threatened billions of dollars. How does the NBA look if Hong Kong becomes Tiananmen Square, but with a million and a half people being shot at in the street? Well, bad. But they are all-in on China, and that’s the game. If you bet on money drowning moral clarity in a sack, you won’t win every time. But you’ll never go broke.
The NBA now has offices in Beijing and Shanghai. When the NBA opened that first lonely office back in 1992, it wasn’t in mainland China. No, the office was opened in Hong Kong. There’s still one there, all these years later. But those easy days, pretty obviously, are long gone.
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