In their 21st consecutive week, demonstrations in Hong Kong have become increasingly violent. A police officer shot an 18-year-old protestor earlier this month. Despite attempts by the Chinese government to quell the protests through pulling the controversial extradition bill, the unrest in Hong Kong is still far from over. However, with the regular season underway, the National Basketball Association seems content to quietly move past its preseason controversy. This can’t happen. By caving to the interests of Chinese money, the NBA has reneged on all its claims of being a free-thinking progressive organization.
Prior to its handling of Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, the NBA had a reputation for not only protecting the outspoken opinions of its players and staff but also making its own moral stands, especially compared to its counterparts like the NFL.
NBA head coaches Steve Kerr and Gregg Popovich have both been outspoken critics concerning various domestic issues such as the need for gun control reform. In 2016, the NBA pulled the All-Star Game from Charlotte, North Carolina because of the controversy surrounding HB2, a bill that would have required individuals to use restrooms corresponding to their assigned gender at birth. During the 2016-2017 season, reigning champions the Golden State Warriors had their invitations to the White House withdrawn by President Trump, an episode that culminated in Lebron calling Trump a “bum.”
Since then, no NBA or WNBA team has been invited to or visited the White House. By now, the NBA has become accustomed to its members’ outspoken views. Commissioner Adam Silver even explained in an interview earlier this year, “Players make their own decisions, organizations make their own decisions.”
Yet this current season has shown that the league might be capable of dictating others’ decisions after all. Rockets shooting guard James Harden, who has no ties to the China controversy, randomly came out in public support of the league’s Chinese fanbase three days after Morey’s tweet made a stir online.
“We apologize,” Harden said after a practice session in Tokyo earlier this month. “You know, we love China.”
In the wake of financial and political pressure, the NBA issued a statement apologizing for offending Chinese fans and saying the league has “great respect for the history and culture of China.”
Unsurprisingly, this noncommittal platitude satisfied neither Beijing nor the league’s critics. Currently, all 11 of the Chinese-owned companies that partner with the NBA have suspended ties with the leagues. As CNN reports, “The Chinese market makes up at least 10% of the league’s current revenue, and could reach 20% by 2030.”
While Silver continues to state that the league’s political stances are not financially motivated, their silence in the response of economic pressure speaks volumes.
From a moral point of view, the NBA’s recent decision to stay silent in the face of human rights violations overseas and its past of supporting the polarizing politics of its players seem inconsistent. However, from a business perspective, it seems their motivations have not changed.
We can’t let the NBA profit from their image of moral superiority to other more conservative sports leagues but suddenly pull back in the face of financial pressure. It’s great that the NBA proudly celebrates heroes like Martin Luther King Jr., but it’s important that the league doesn’t lose sight of his actual message: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Email Bin Cho at [email protected]