Why the NBA cowered to its Chinese overlords

Dan WetzelColumnist

China, like any successful totalitarian nation, knows that the key to assuring silence and compliance rests in oversized disciplinary action against even the slightest of uprisings. Nothing gets everyone in line like an occasional annihilation.

It certainly appears to be working with the National Basketball Association, which is apologizing and kowtowing to the Chinese government right now after the communist regime took great umbrage with an otherwise tame tweet from an otherwise anonymous general manager.

Over the weekend, Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey — well known among the most diehard of fans but almost no one else — dared to weigh in on the ongoing, occasionally violent pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.

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“Fight For Freedom. Stand With Hong Kong,” Morey tweeted to his 200,000 followers.

(Twitter screenshot)
(Twitter screenshot)

That was it. And that was enough, apparently. China went crazy. It reportedly pulled sponsorship money from the Houston Rockets (which due to former player Yao Ming is the most popular team in the country), banned media coverage of Morey and ended any cooperation between the Chinese Basketball Association and the franchise.

The NBA quickly caved. It apologized to China, calling Morey’s statement “regrettable” and noting that it “deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China.” Morey himself walked it all back. Rockets star James Harden added his own “sorry” even though he had nothing to do with anything.

We apologize. You know, we love China,” Harden said.

Just like that, a league and its employees (players, coaches, executives) who take great pride in expressing their opinions on all measures of political and social discourse got slapped into order.

All this because an American citizen dared to encourage a pro-democracy movement.

And you wonder why China is so powerful.

It’s hypocritical of the NBA, of course. It’s a bad look. It’s also modern reality.

The NBA is adamant about one thing: It respects Morey having an opinion and hasn’t suspended or disciplined him or anything like that. It’s a fair point, although having the league itself apologize for a single individual’s comment is a pretty good snuff on the nose.

“There is no doubt, the economic impact is already clear,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver told reporters in Tokyo on Monday. “There have already been fairly dramatic consequences from that tweet, and I have read some of the media suggesting that we are not supporting Daryl Morey, but, in fact, we have.

“I think as a values-based organization that I want to make it clear … Daryl Morey is supported in terms of his ability to exercise his freedom of expression,” Silver continued. “ ... The fact we have apologized to fans in China is not inconsistent with supporting someone’s right to have a point of view.”

Daryl Morey created a headache for the NBA with one tweet. (AP)
Daryl Morey created a headache for the NBA with one tweet. (AP)

In the end, like pretty much every business on Earth, the league wants China’s money. It wants access to its 1.4 billion citizens. It wants to continue to stage preseason games there, sell jerseys there and broadcast its games there. (It’s not uncommon for 20 million to watch the NBA Finals despite the time difference.)

And so like pretty much every other American business, it’s willing to have one set of rules for, say, North Carolina, which it delayed staging an All-Star game because of a divisive, so-called “bathroom bill,” and another for China, which routinely imprisons and tortures dissenters, squashes free speech and opposes fair elections.

This how it works, though, and not just in business. Also silent on the Hong Kong protests, which are now in their 18th week? The United States of America.

The White House has said nothing on what used to be a bedrock principle of America: promoting democracy around the world. Perhaps it’s because in a June phone call President Donald Trump reportedly told Chinese President Xi Jinping that the U.S. would be quiet on the subject while trade talks continue.

These days, when the Chinese say jump, America asks, “How high?”

And this is why. The Chinese don’t really care about Daryl Morey. Again, almost no one knows who he is and the Chinese state-run media could easily block whatever attention a single tweet generated.

No, what they fear is a parade of NBA declarations. More general managers. Teams. Famous figures. Steve Kerr or Gregg Popovich pregame press conferences. And, eventually, perhaps even LeBron James himself, or others like him.

If the star players start talking about this, tweeting about this, writing things on their shoes about this, well, that’s what can break through the censorship and reach the people. That's what might change minds. Maybe.

So the Chinese flexed their muscles and got everyone to shut up. The NBA siding with China is just a wonderful extra slice of potential propaganda for them to use.

“What is the problem with people freely expressing their opinion?,” wrote Joe Tsai, the Taiwanese-Canadian billionaire who owns the Brooklyn News, on Facebook. “This freedom is an inherent American value and the NBA has been very progressive in allowing players and other constituents a platform to speak out on issues.”

Indeed.

“The problem is, there are certain topics that are third-rail issues in certain countries, societies and communities,” Tsai wrote. “Supporting a separatist movement in a Chinese territory is one of those third-rail issues, not only for the Chinese government, but also for all citizens in China.”

Well, framed like that — a separatist movement — rather than a pro-democracy movement will certainly make it a third rail. But that’s China’s way of controlling public opinion.

There is no open or honest debate. China’s government plans on keeping it that way. So Daryl Morey found himself in the middle of a geopolitical tempest. Then he found his bosses, pretty much like everyone else, weren’t going to take his side, certainly not when there are team jerseys to sell and Pepsi deals to make.

The NBA is not in Charlotte anymore.

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