How The NBA Got Punked By China

In Basketball
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About a year ago Daryl Morey, General Manager of the NBA’s Houston Rockets, posted a tweet in support of Hong Kong

Apparently, unbeknownst to me and many others in the USA, there were some things happening in Hong Kong where citizen’s rights were being violated and outright denied by the Chinese government. Protestors were being dealt with harshly by the Communist government and the story was getting around. 

Morey’s tweet was the kind that comes and goes, as is what happens with most tweets, even those by front office staff of teams in a very popular league. But this one stuck for two big reasons. 

1) Communist China does not have the same free speech rules as the USA. 

2) The Houston Rockets, having been the home of Chinese hoops legend Yao Ming for the duration of Yao’s NBA career, are the most popular team in China. Thus, Morey’s tweet is extra-visible there (even though Twitter is officially blocked in China). 

3) China and the NBA — and by extension, Nike (repressing many top players) — do a lot of business together. 

China was not happy with Morey’s tweet supporting Hong Kong, because the tweet supporting HK indirectly criticized China. The Chinese Basketball Association suspended all work with the Rockets. NBA games got pulled off of Chinese TV. The NBA had to release statements distancing themselves from, if not outright denouncing, Morey’s tweet, apparently to keep the peace (and the business) between the NBA and China. 

Morey hasn’t spoken or tweeted another word re: China or Hong Kong since that (deleted) tweet. 

Several voices spoke up against the NBA’s self-imposed silence on China’s alleged human rights violations. No matter where you stood, if you knew about this, you understood why the NBA was quiet: the NBA earns an estimated $4 billion per year in revenue via China alone. 

Listen, I’m no tree hugger. The NBA is a business. I’m a business. You’re a business. Money matters. The NBA apparently cared more about that $4 billion in revenue than they cared about the civil rights of Hong Kong residents. Their actions paint this picture clearly. 

(Kanye shoulder shrug… 🤷🏽‍♂️) 

To me, that’s fair game. The NBA is in the entertainment, sports and advertising industries. They’re not a civil rights organization. It’s not their job to make loud statements, or any statements at all, about human rights, policing, the government, race, and things like that. People watch sports to kick back, relax, cheer for their favorite team and get away from all that shit. 

… Wait, what? Oh. 

You know, like I do, that the NBA decided to jump into the civil rights / human rights / social commentary pool this summer. I understand why: multiple stories of Black people apparently harmed or killed in interactions with police made headline news. Social media amplified the stories. Many of the NBA’s players are Black. Most of them have lots of social media followers. Given the circumstances, the players almost had to say something about what they were seeing. 

With solid support from NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, the NBA did just that. 

They painted “Black Lives Matter” on the court for their games. Players wore warm up t-shirts espousing “Equality” and BLM. The players symbolically kneeled during the playing of the national anthem. Players walked off and refused to play games the day after news of a Black man being shot by police went viral. 

NBA players made it clear that they were more than athletes, they would NOT “shut up and dribble,” and would indeed utilize their platforms to “speak out” about “social injustice.”

The NBA, its teams, many players, and companies associated with the league pledged hundreds of millions of dollars to fighting racial injustice. “Injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere.” If you see something and don’t say something, you’re just as guilty as the perpetrators, they said. 

The NBA was and is all-in. 

I don’t agree with the woke show that the league (and the WNBA) has become. The players are ill-informed, as far as what I’ve seen and heard, repeating talking points that don’t jibe with objective facts. The groupthink of social media and the league itself won’t allow a Trump-supporting or police-supporting player to make their stance known (I theorize there has to be at least one such player in the league today). All the sound and fury and kneeling and hash tagging and posting signify and add up to a bunch of nothing. 

At the same time, I’m fine with it. It provides material for me to write and speak about, if nothing else. And, it’s a free country, after all. 

So, when Commissioner Silver recently gave a that’s-not-our-business statement about China and the social injustices happening there, it looked and smelled like hypocrisy. 

Is it, though? Yes. I’ll tell you why. 

In our culture, there’s a phrase that goes, “keep that same energy.” Its meaning is self-explanatory: if you turn a blind eye to this, be just as blind to that. If you speak up and make noise on this topic, however, speak up about that one, too. Don’t pick and choose your activism. 

I’ll give an example. 

Let’s say you’re playing basketball and someone fouls you in a way you don’t appreciate. The perpetrator is a person who, if push comes to shove, you think you can either beat in a fight or at least intimidate into apologizing. You start an argument with the person over the foul and assert your dominance. 

They back down. You win. 

Now, say you get fouled again that day, but by someone different: this person is a known agitator who has their own reputation for fisticuffs. They don’t back down from fights — they look for and start them, actually — and won’t be intimidated by tough talk. 

You let this foul go without comment and keep playing. 

Your energy changed based on your adversary. You got tough when you knew you could win, and stayed quiet when the victory was in question. You violated the principle of keeping that same energy. 

Where I’m from, the person who does this is a punk. A situational tough guy. 

This is what the NBA has become by ignoring China while bloviating on social justice

The energy they had towards the Trump Administration (not unique or notable anymore; everyone does it), the police as a unit and the vaporous ideas of racism, injustice and inequality (ideas don’t hit back) disappears when the opponent is China. Speaking out against racism or Trump on social / mainstream media is like throwing an apple across the lunchroom in a food fight: you blend in with everyone else. Your action alone doesn’t stand out when everyone else is doing the same thing and you have nothing to lose. 

(Interesting to note how everyone has the “energy” to kneel now — while Colin Kaepernick, the one guy who risked something in doing so, was applauded then and now by the same athletes who didn’t have the courage to take the same career-threatening risks as Kap took. But now they all want to paint themselves as defiant. Go figure. 

New flash: It’s not defiance when your bosses are encouraging you to do it and you’ve been assured there won’t be a penalty.)

Speaking out against China when you do $4 billion in revenue there stands out, and would draw a reaction. China can hit back in the one place that makes the NBA, the NBA: at the bank. 

The NBA could have all the best players in the world and the same high level of product, but wouldn’t be what it is if the players earned $80K salaries. The league draws the attention that it draws because we all know what kind of money it brings in. China could alter all of that, quickly. 

The NBA knows this. Which is they can’t keep this same energy

I heard a journalist make the point that the NBA and all major pro sports are merely TV shows. He had a good point. The majority of the money the NBA and NFL make are not from ticket sales or fans buying jerseys. It’s the television contracts with ESPN, TNT, CBS and the rest that makes the leagues rich. 

The players’ job is to put on a great show for their audience, whoever they think that audience is. For years the agreed-upon show was to just play the damn games and see who won. Now, under the shadow of social media, players are influenced to get political and address social topics. Social media has players believing that what they see on Twitter is a reflection of what the fans watching on TV also want. 

I don’t know if they’re right or wrong; time will answer that question. What I do know is that they’re playing their role according to the script they’ve been handed. 

You can decide who’s writing it. 

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