Adam Silver, basketball, Bradley Beal, China, Chris Paul, Daryl Morey, David Fizdale, democracy, Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors, Gregg Popovich, Hong Kong, Hong Kong protests, Houston Rockets, human rights, Im-Politic, James Harden, Jaylen Brown, Kevin Durant, LeBron James, National Basektball Association, NBA, Russell Westbrook, Steph Curry, Steve Kerr, Tilman J. Fertitta, Trump, Twitter, Uighurs
In recent years, the National Basketball Association (NBA) has worked hard to earn its reputation as the most socially conscious sports league in America and possibly the world – and certainly its owners and Commissioner Adam Silver have both permitted the players to speak out on various political and policy issues, and demonstrated a pretty high degree of “wokeness” themselves. Nor has American men’s pro basketball’s commitment to social and economic and political justice been limited to words. Time after time, many of the NBA’s biggest stars and most successful franchises and coaches have backed up their rhetoric with actions, ranging from boycotting events with President Trump to supporting social programs in low-income communities and other worthy causes.
What a shame, then, that neither the players’ nor management seem to believe that Hong Kong’s democracy protesters deserve even a syllable of sympathy. Worse, the issue has gotten the silent treatment even from the NBA’s most outspoken figures, and the league itself just made clear that it’s so determined to maximize profits in its current huge and potentially much bigger China market that it’s given the cause of freedom in Hong Kong – and by extension, the mainland – the back of its hand.
Hong Kong has been in turmoil since June, engulfed by massive, angry, and sporadically violent protests – and a more violent government crackdown – triggered by the government’s proposal of a law that would enable the extradition of criminal suspects to China. To be sure, despite Beijing’s promise as part of the 1997 “handover” agreement with the city’s British colonial rulers to permit Hong Kong to retain its largely democratic political system and rule-of-law legal system to remain in place for fifty years, China has steadily encroached on those freedoms practically since Hong Kong became a “Special Administrative Region” of the People’s Republic.
Nonetheless, the extradition measure has apparently convinced many Hong Kong-ers that China has greatly sped up the timetable for replacing the “one country, two systems” arrangement with “one country, one system.”
But although the NBA has been a large and rapidly growing presence on the Chinese sports scene for decades, there’s no record of anyone associated with the league making any remarks on the Hong Kong situation until last Friday – when Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey tweeted “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.”
That long-time silence isn’t necessarily proof of NBA hypocrisy. What does look disgraceful is the U.S. pro basketball world’s reaction. Morey’s boss, Houston owner Tilman J. Fertitta, denounced the tweet, insisting that the Rockets “are NOT a political organization.” The NBA itself expressed “regret” that Morey had deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China” and specified that his backing of freedom in Hong Kong “does not represent…the values of the league.”
It’s important to note that Morey has (so far) kept his job – after deleting the original tweet from his account and sending out a subsequent statement on the network indicating some contrition, albeit seemingly for commenting on Hong Kong in haste, without considering “other perspectives” and not for his Hong Kong views per se. The NBA also pointedly declared that it backs individuals “sharing their views on matters important to them.”
But there can’t be any reasonable doubt that the NBA’s China stance has been much more timid than its position on issues such as rebuking President Trump – which prompted this statement from Silver: “These players in our league, our coaches, are speaking out on issues that are important to them and important to society. I encourage them to do that.”
Nor can there be much doubt that the league’s Hong Kong timidity stems from China’s sharp reaction – which has so far included decisions by the league’s chief Chinese digital partner and state media (the only kind permitted in China) to remove Rockets games from their broadcasts, and by the country’s official basketball organization to “suspend cooperation” with the Houston franchise.
In fact, the NBA’s record on other China-related issues looks pretty shabby, too. As reported on Slate.com:
“The league runs a training center in Xinjiang, a region where the state has imprisoned and subjugated an entire class of people who are part of the Uighur minority. The NBA’s most progressive coaches, Steve Kerr and Gregg Popovich, have rightfully spoken out against the Trump administration’s Muslim ban. If anyone associated with the league were to bring attention to human rights abuses, it’s them, but neither man publicly addressed the Chinese government’s imprisonment of roughly a million Uighurs while they were in the country with USA Basketball [the private, non-profit organization that, among other responsibilities, supervises American participation in international basketball competitions like the Olympics] for this summer’s FIBA [International Basketball Federation] Championships.”
All the same, the number of ordinarily outspoken star NBA players, prominent teams, and leading coaches who to date have said absolutely nothing about the Hong Kong protests – or the league’s plain vanilla reaction – is stunning, and aside from Kerr and Popovich includes the following (as of early this afternoon):
Lebron James, Steph Curry, the Golden State Warriors, Draymond Green, Kevin Durant, Bradley Beal, Jaylen Brown, David Fizdale, and Chris Paul.
But even their silence looks good next to James Harden’s reaction: He’s apologized for Morey’s original tweet both on his own behalf and that of Houston Rockets teammate Russell Westbrook.
And here’s what’s even weirder about this soft NBA cave-in to China: It apparently hasn’t occurred to anyone associated with the league that it’s astronomical popularity in the People’s Republic is not only an immense cash cow – it gives them considerable leverage, too. Sure, if major American basketball figures decried repression of Hong Kong-ers, or the Uighurs, or any other Chinese, the government could drastically reduce the NBA’s activities in China and reduce the league’s profits. But just how well is that likely to sit with China’s legions of basketball fans? And given the unrest in Hong Kong, would Beijing really be so anxious to antagonize another significant chunk of its citizenry?
The answer might indeed be “Yes.” But wouldn’t it be interesting and important – not to mention courageous and inspiring – if any of pro basketball’s (already incredibly wealthy) social justice warriors decided to put this proposition to the test?