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A simple tweet by an NBA general manager escalated into an international incident that put the business relationship between one of America’s most prominent sports leagues and the world’s second-largest economy at risk.
Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey posted — then quickly deleted — a tweet expressing solidarity with protesters in Hong Kong who are opposed to the Chinese government, prompting a strong backlash in mainland China. Morey apologized, as did Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta and star player James Harden. Other basketball stars, like Stephen Curry and Giannis Antetokounmpo, have avoided making political statements when commenting on the situation.
The NBA has spent decades cultivating an audience among China’s nearly 1.4 billion citizens. Several Chinese businesses, including the state television network, have said they’re suspending their relationships with the Rockets in response to Morey’s tweet.
The furor erupted at the same time the NBA was holding preseason events in China. Some festivities were canceled, but an exhibition game between the Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets was allowed to go forward on Thursday.
Why there’s debate:
The NBA has come under criticism for allowing an authoritarian government to impose censorship on its players and executives in the interest of protecting its bottom line. Others have accused the league of hypocrisy for embracing a progressive image when players and coaches express opinions on domestic political issues, only to stifle them when powerful business interests become upset.
As many as 800 million Chinese citizens watched the NBA last year and some players have cultlike fanbases, giving the league unparalleled power to draw attention to human rights abuses in China, some argue.
The NBA’s defenders say the league has far too much invested in China to risk its business in the country. NBA commissioner Adam Silver said the situation has already had “fairly dramatic consequences” on the league’s finances. More provocation could further damage the partnership in a way that hurts not only the league’s profits, but player salaries as well. Others argue it’s unfair to single out the NBA when many of America’s biggest corporations also fall in line with China’s policies in order to gain access to the market.
According to reports from the arena, the scene at Thursday’s exhibition game in Shanghai felt like a “shift back toward normalcy,” suggesting that on-the-court action might serve to temper tensions. The NBA’s regular season begins Oct. 22.
The NBA’s popularity in China gives it power most businesses don’t have
“Far from being vulnerable in this fight, the NBA holds all the leverage. It should take stock of basketball’s long history in China, its own enduring popularity there, and the 800 million Chinese who watched its broadcasts last year. The government won’t be keen to pick a fight that tempts so many fans to defy it, and the NBA should be able to safely stand its ground.” — Adam Minter, Bloomberg
Companies need to stop trying to have it both ways when doing business with China
“Businesses are not supposed to be this brittle, but American companies continue to approach the mirage of the Chinese economy as if it is open for the taking, and that the American consumer (and their representatives in Washington) are going to continue to ignore the ‘authoritarian straddle’ these companies have to undertake to appease Beijing while trying to not displease Washington.” — Danny Crichton, TechCrunch
China risks prompting protests from NBA stars by overplaying its hand
“The Chinese can limit or stop a lot of information, but if star players — or celebrities in any walk of life who are now clued in on this — start, say, writing ‘Hong Kong’ on their shoes or relentlessly supporting the protests, that can break through the wall. If those same stars are banned, or limited, from doing business in China, then they may be even more motivated to do it.” — Dan Wetzel, Yahoo Sports
The NBA should end all business with China
“The only way for the NBA to wash its hands of these issues is to completely move out of China altogether.” — Rohan Nadkarni, Sports Illustrated
Players should speak out even if the league doesn’t
“The league has shown which side it is on. The players, so outspoken on so many issues, should be unafraid once more and side with people instead of the league’s own bottom-line interests.” — Dave Zirin, the Nation
Don’t push back
It’s unfair to single out the NBA
“Yes, the NBA has made a mutually beneficial commercial accommodation with China. There are 800 million Chinese viewers of the league, according to Time, and there is a 30-year media partnership. You have a problem with that or consider it gutless? Then you have a problem with literally hundreds of American companies.” — Sally Jenkins, Washington Post
Businesses shouldn’t be our moral standard-bearers
“We need to stop expecting moral leadership from for-profit businesses like the NBA.” — Pablo Torre, ESPN
The NBA needs to protect its business interests in China
“I suspect NBA Commissioner Adam Silver is pained and embarrassed that the league and its shareholders cannot be as bold in China as they are in America, but I bet he also knows that the NBA needs China more than China needs the NBA. Unless that changes, the NBA is going to play ball with the Communist Party.” — Mike Riggs, Reason
The league promotes a “woke” image only when it suits its bottom line
“The NBA can be free and easy about player political expression partly because their expressions almost universally have been in line with the urban, liberal bent of the league’s fan base. Now the Air Jordan is on the other foot, at least with respect to the league’s Chinese fans, and the trade-offs are not so painless.” — Holman W. Jenkins Jr., Wall Street Journal
The NBA made its choice by doing business with China in the first place
“The amount of scrambling that’s been done by various figures within the NBA since then should indicate exactly how reliant the league is on those business deals with China. It should also serve as a reminder that any business that becomes reliant on Chinese dollars is always at risk of becoming a pro-authoritarian stooge in the service of protecting those dollars.” — Tom Ley, Deadspin
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Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Visual China Group via Getty Images/Visual China Group via Getty Images