Price for the NBA in China? Its soul

by | Oct 13, 2019 | Detroit Free Press, Comment | 1 comment

It was a short tweet. Only seven words. But it ripped the façade off of two giant forces, the Chinese government and the National Basketball Association, and exposed their hypocrisies in a sobering light. If you’ve ever doubted the power of free speech, and the perils of silence, you need only to have watched the events of last week.

“Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong.” Those were the seven words, tweeted out by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, a man who, when it comes to famous names in the NBA, is on the same level as the team trainer. He’s not a player. He’s not recognizable. He deleted the tweet shortly after he posted it.

But that didn’t stop China, the most populous nation on the planet, from going berserk. The government-owned TV network canceled televising the NBA exhibition games being played there. The internet streaming was canceled as well. The Chinese Basketball Association suspended all association with the Houston Rockets. And China’s consul general in Houston demanded the team “immediately correct the mistakes.”

When the NBA made a statement explaining Morey’s First Amendment rights, the CCTV network quickly countered that “any remarks that challenge (China’s) national sovereignty and social stability are not within the scope of freedom of speech.”

Shortly after that, all 11 of the NBA’s official partners in China — from a travel company to a fast food chain — suspended their ties with the league.

All this for a tweet that the Chinese people couldn’t even see — because Twitter is banned in China.

Still, as awful as that is, it almost pales in comparison to how the NBA reacted.

China, we expect to ignore civil rights.

The NBA should be better.

Money talks

Instead, our basketball league made one misstep after another, showing how slippery the floor gets when you’ve papered it with money.

First, they trotted out Houston’s James Harden, the NBA superstar, to try and appease things. He began, “We apologize, uh, you know. We love China. We love playing here.”

Way to stick up for your general manager, James.

The league itself put out a statement: “We recognize that the views expressed by …Morey have deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China, which is regrettable.”

Way to stick up for freedom of speech, NBA.

It fell to the league’s commissioner, Adam Silver, who has been outspoken on his players’ rights to protest American policies, to try and clean up the mess. He eventually defended Morey’s freedom of expression. But then his league canceled all media opportunities for the NBA players in China, effectively shutting down that very same freedom. This was after a CNN reporter dared to ask Harden a question about the issue, only to be told by a team official, “We’re only taking basketball questions.”

The reporter surrendered the microphone.

Harden sat mute.

Now, if all of this seems like something out of 1950s Russia, that’s because China, in 2019, still behaves in the same authoritarian manner, denying access to world communication, destroying those who would speak out against its government.

Which begs the question: Why the heck is the NBA so involved with China in the first place?

The answer is obvious.


Blinded by billions

Billions of dollars, and 1.4 billion people. It is a marketplace that has made many an American CEO dizzy with greed, seeing all those potential customers just waiting to be served. The NBA is no different than other U.S. businesses that have raced in to capitalize on the Chinese marketplace. Never mind that China’s government is so antithetical to American ideas, it ought to give them pause. Forget it. There’s so much money to be made! They’re like drillers in a massive oil field, giddy in their digging.

But as we saw last week, there’s more than dollars at the bottom of those holes. There’s principle. Let’s remember what this NBA incident is all about. Morey’s tweet wasn’t some radical far-left or far-right statement. He mentioned “freedom” — the defining word for America — and Hong Kong, which has been under the heel of China, the Brits, then China again, and is now fighting a law that would have “dissidents” (meaning those who don’t agree with China’s iron-first government) extradited from Hong Kong to face justice in mainland China.

How would you feel if you were plucked from your supposedly independent government to face punishment someplace else?

Morey was not only correct in his ideals, he was correct in his practice. One person. One voice. Making a statement. It was a tweet. He didn’t blow anything up. Yet it somehow required a week’s worth of couched apologies and the mooting of American voices.

This further illustrates the complicated web the NBA has crawled into with its insatiable desire to be “global.” China now makes up 10% of the NBA’s annual revenue. It’s only growing. Shoe companies like Nike and Adidas are seeing massive growth in China, much bigger than they see here in America.

Which begs another question:

What will LeBron James have to say about this?

A King’s ransom

James is arguably Nike’s biggest star. He has been outspoken in supporting athletes kneeling during the national anthem, which he defends as free speech, outspoken on American police abusing power, outspoken on minorities being marginalized by government forces.

Well? How does all that not apply to those protesting in Hong Kong? You can flip to any number of videos right now and see them beaten, hosed, tear-gassed.

And you can bet if a Chinese athlete at a major national event got down on his knees during China’s national anthem, he’d be facing a whole lot more than booing.

So will James speak out when he and his L.A. Lakers teammates return from China and those now controversial exhibition games? Or will he sit mute like Harden did, like others in the NBA are doing, because they’re all afraid of disrupting the giant money cart that China represents?

Would James and fellow Nike endorsers have the guts to make even the simple statement that Morey did — knowing how much money Nike makes in China? If not, why should anyone listen when they selectively choose to decry something else?

You stand for something or you fall for anything. Right now, the NBA, which has been so proud of standing for democratic principles, is having its spine tested by a marriage it couldn’t help itself from rushing into, because the bride was just so rich. China continues to seduce American businesses. But we’re starting to see the real price of all those billions.

Contact Mitch Albom: Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.

1 Comment

  1. rhpfof

    You called “a spade is a spade” in that column about the NBA & $$$. No agenda twisting in this rendering. Will it change the landscape?? I’m skeptical that it will, but a good introspective look.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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