By Placing Profits Over Principles, The NBA Shows What It's Really Made Of

Tuesday, October 15, 2019
Image credit: 
koosen, iStock

Last week, Daryl Morey, the general manager of the NBA’s Houston Rockets, tweeted “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong” in support of Hong Kong citizen protests against mainland China. These seemingly harmless seven words created a political firestorm within the world’s premier basketball league that shows that the NBA’s highly publicized and proud commitment to social justice, freedom, and equality is largely abandoned when such principles affect their bottom line.  

The NBA prominently states that standing for social values and responsibility is one of their principles. NBA league commissioner Adam Silver stated in an interview last year that “part of being an NBA player is a sense of an obligation, social responsibility, a desire to speak up directly about issues that are important. . . . I think that us upholding those values is good business because I think it’s consistent with how people see our brand.”

China became incensed by this tweet, and the league’s commitment to social values and responsibility now rings exceedingly hollow as the NBA tried every which way to walk this back and reassure China that the NBA’s concern for Hong Kong human rights pales in comparison to the NBA’s interest in China’s business relationships.

Following the tweet, China’s basketball association, which recently had signed a $1.5 billion deal with the NBA, and some Chinese corporations reacted strongly by immediately withdrawing from business partnerships with the Rockets and threatening to black out Rocket games to be televised in China. 

Principles? Fighting for freedom? Justice? All these political foundations of the NBA went out the window because China is the NBA’s most important foreign market, generating about 10 percent of the league’s revenues, which will soon grow to 20 percent. Three hundred million Chinese citizens now play basketball, and the NBA rightly views China as a veritable gold mine.

The NBA’s priority of profits over political principles is not surprising from a pure business perspective, but is very surprising given the league’s fashionable social justice marketing line and because the NBA and its players have been extremely involved in certain social and political movements.

This includes Black Lives Matter, a cause associated with NBA players’ openly protesting a police shooting of an African American; and LGBTQ issues, which includes the NBA’s decision to move the 2017 NBA all-star game from Charlotte, North Carolina, because of a state law that restricted public bathrooms based on a user’s gender at the time of birth.  

NBA commissioner Adam Silver, perhaps the most politically savvy league commissioner in sports today, stated:

With this backdrop, it is striking that the NBA’s integrity tent didn’t only fold but collapsed into a sea of pandering to a country where human-rights abuses are widespread and horrific. Houston Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta nearly fell over himself tweeting that the NBA is not about politics, only basketball. No politics? What happened to the NBA’s social justice platform? It vanished as soon as the Rockets’ revenue stream was threatened.

In damage control mode, Rockets superstar James Harden stated, “We love China. We love everything about them.” Everything? Perhaps Harden doesn’t know that China ranks 141st out of 162 countries in systematic rankings of personal liberty and freedom. China’s ranking is worse than some of the most authoritarian and destructive global regimes, including those of Zimbabwe and Uganda. We’re talking about a country where political prisoners are jailed for life for speaking out against the Chinese government.

Or perhaps Harden ignores these inconvenient facts because Chinese fans spend millions on Harden’s signature shoes and other merchandise?

Commissioner Adam Silver tried to walk back this public relations snafu by stating that the NBA would not regulate free speech. Good decision, but at the same time, Silver apologized to the Chinese that Morey’s tweet had offended them. But if the state government of North Carolina merited a clear reproach by the league—with no apology—for regulating bathroom use by natal gender, then why wasn’t this same standard applied to defending the rights of Hong Kong citizens?

In California, it got worse as the Golden State Warriors, whose players and coach are politically outspoken, awkwardly side-stepped the issue. Coincidentally, the Warriors and their players are extremely popular in China. Golden State head coach Steve Kerr initially refused to comment on Morey’s tweet, but later seemed to place the United States on par with China in terms of human-rights violations because of US mass shootings. I suspect that Kerr wishes now he could have walked this back.

As the gaffes continued to pile up, the league decided that the quickest way for this to blow over was by trying to shut down all media questions during the preseason other than questions narrowly focused on basketball. But this simply kept the issue within the spotlight longer, with lots of YouTube videos showing coaches and players looking befuddled or saying, “I go along with whatever Adam Silver says.”

The NBA can’t pretend that the principles of freedom and equality are a foundation of who they are when it is only convenient for certain types of freedoms, or just when such sentiments contribute to their bottom line. But this is exactly what a seven-word tweet exposed. The NBA is all about doing what is good for them. Period.

But what is also true is that the NBA is doing a world of good by partnering with China and exposing Chinese citizens to a remarkable sport that was created and that is practiced at its highest level in a free and democratic society. This is a wonderful byproduct of capitalism and could have been celebrated as such by the NBA.

The historical record shows that economic and political reforms often follow when a communist country has been exposed to institutions and values of the West. Put differently, the Chinese need the NBA more than the NBA needs China. The NBA could have stood seven feet tall and defended Daryl Morley—and what the league stands for—from the get-go, rather than pander to a country that is desperately trying to control a society eager for more political and economic freedoms.

Chinese freedom matters. By practicing its craft with the highest level of intensity and integrity, the NBA can do more for world equality and freedom than could any mission statement that will ever adorn the league’s website. If the NBA realizes this, then this entire snafu will have been worth it.