In NBA-China dustup, the league never should have apologized to begin with

NBA commissioner Adam Silver keeps trying to make the point that while the NBA did, indeed, apologize to China for Daryl Morey’s tweet supporting the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, the league isn’t restricting anyone’s freedom of expression, sanctioning any employees or telling anyone what to say or do.

“The fact we have apologized to fans in China is not inconsistent with supporting someone’s right to have a point of view,” Silver said this week while in Tokyo.

True, but that sure feels like a distinction without a difference. And based on the Chinese escalating the response to this controversy, trying to split hairs isn’t working. And perhaps never will.

Morey, the Houston Rockets general manager, kicked it all off with a fairly tame retweet of a supportive message to the protests, which are now in the 18th week and have occasionally turned violent.

“Fight For Freedom. Stand With Hong Kong,” it read.

It was essentially nothing and came from a relatively anonymous NBA personality. Morey is well known by general manager standards, but he isn’t exactly LeBron James. Most of his 200,000 Twitter followers probably didn’t even pay attention. Twitter is banned in China, so no one there even saw it.

The Chinese government, however, wanted to make it clear to the NBA that any comments or gestures about the Hong Kong protests are considered off-limits. It fears this bubbling up to the LeBron level, which could impact the propaganda campaigns that keep it in power.

As such, it responded with over-sized aggression — canceling business deals, pulling exhibition games off television and putting the NBA’s billions in economic interests in China in doubt.

So the NBA apologized, dubbing Morey’s retweet “regrettable” and noting that it “deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China.”

The commissioner on Tuesday issued a new statement that acknowledged the initial comments left “people angered, confused or unclear on who we are or what the NBA stands for.”

El base Russell Westbrook, izquierda, posa al lado del gerente general de los Rockets de Houston, Daryl Morey, en su presentación oficial como nuevo jugador del equipo de NBA, en conferencia de prensa del viernes 26 de julio de 2019, en Houston. (AP Foto/David J. Phillip)
Daryl Morey soaks it in at Russell Westbrook's introductory news conference. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

He added, “We recognize that our two countries have different political systems and beliefs. And like many global brands, we bring our business to places with different political systems around the world. But for those who question our motivation, this is about far more than growing our business.

“Values of equality, respect and freedom of expression have long defined the NBA — and will continue to do so,” Silver stated.

He should have said that originally. After all, the Morey tweet wasn’t regrettable unless viewed through a totalitarian lens. Besides, trying to be rational with irrational actors doesn’t usually work.

The apology sure hasn’t. China just keeps hammering the league in both business dealings and its state-run media. This is what it does.

“During the pro-democracy Hong Kong protests, the Chinese government has put enormous pressure on companies when it found out that their employees have supported the protests on social media,” William Nee, a Hong Kong-based business and human rights analyst for Amnesty International, told Yahoo Sports.

“Then the Chinese government, along with Communist Party-run media outlets and angry netizens put pressure on companies to fire offending employees and make groveling statements to Beijing,” Nee continued.

Well, the NBA isn’t going to fire Morey or anyone else. That appears to be the line in the sand. But the groveling statement to Beijing sure did happen.

“Essentially, the Chinese government wants to use its economic leverage to coerce the NBA and its players into not making any comments on human rights or democracy that it finds threatening,” Nee said.

China sees the league as meddling with its affairs. What an American would see as a “pro-democracy movement” is considered by the Chinese government to be a “separatist movement” … i.e. the eventual independence of Hong Kong.

Back in the United States, the league is getting hammered for kowtowing to the commies, even though essentially every major international corporation does the same. So too does the United States. Donald Trump has likewise been silent about Hong Kong and during a June phone call reportedly promised the Chinese he’d remain that way.

Being pro-democracy used to be a staple of America.

Money talks though. Or in this case silences people.

Right now the Chinese are threatening to cut the NBA off from its 1.4 billion citizens/customers. Basketball in general, and the NBA in particular, is hugely popular there. That’s the last thing the NBA wants. Yet just cutting the people off from the league wouldn’t go over so well either — there isn’t much the average Chinese citizen can or would do about it, but does the government want that?

What happens next is fascinating. Does a player step up and speak out? It’s not their obligation to fight this fight, but someone might want to do it. Silver has signaled he won’t do anything if they do. Since only about two-thirds of the league is American-born, would this even be an American issue?

What about coach Steve Kerr or some other head coach speaking out? What about Silver himself?

The commissioner is headed to Shanghai to meet with the Chinese and watch a Los Angeles Lakers-Brooklyn Nets exhibition game that is no longer appearing on television in China.

Silver hopes for the best, “but I’m a realist as well,” he said Tuesday. “And I recognize that this issue may not die down so quickly.”

Not in China. Not back here.

And it’s capable of flaring back up at any moment, because the protests in Hong Kong aren’t stopping and being in favor of democracy remains a rather popular opinion in the United States.

Adam Silver is stuck in the middle, everyone upset at him and his league. It’s the apology that put him there.

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