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Coolican: NBA needs to protect rights of players amidst Chinese backlash

| Thursday, October 10, 2019

Sports players, coaches and managers are more than just who they are on the field. This has been shown by players like Lebron James, Colin Kapernick and Major League Soccer’s Alejandro Bedoya (who after scoring a goal in August grabbed the on-field microphone and told Congress to end gun violence), who have become influential social activists. Even coaches like Greg Poppovich and Steve Kerr have not been afraid to speak up on issues that are meaningful to them. Athletes and coaches have proven that they are not merely a cog in the machine. 

The major storyline of the NBA preseason has been the controversy surrounding the Asia games. The Houston Rockets are set to play the Toronto Raptors in Tokyo, and the Brooklyn Nets face the Los Angeles Lakers in Shanghai and Shenzhen (a city just north of Hong Kong). Now it seems the Nets-Lakers games, and the popularity of the NBA in China, are in jeopardy after a recent controversial tweet by Rockets general manager Daryl Morey. Morey tweeted a since-deleted graphic that read “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong,” amidst on-going protests in Hong Kong against Chinese influence. The backlash was near immediate. Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta criticized Morey publicly, and there were even reports that Morey could be fired.

The NBA is hugely popular in China. Chinese superstars like Yao Ming and Jeremy Lin are obviously popular, but other players, such as Dwayne Wade, who has a lifetime shoe deal with Chinese shoe company Li-Ning, Derrick Rose and James Harden are also celebrities in China. Harden was one of the first people to publicly apologize for Morey’s comments. NBA China is worth over $4 billion, with millions more going to American companies like Nike and Under Armour for the sale of basketball merchandise. It is the NBA’s largest international market and one it is hesitant to jeopardize. However, it should be prepared to if it comes down to a choice between that and supporting the free speech of its employees. League commissioner Adam Silver has issued a statement in that regard, saying he and the league were “apologetic” about the outcome, but also saying that he supported Morey and the rest of the league’s right to free speech. It appeared to be an attempt to appease both sides, but it has not worked. 

Chinese companies came down hard after this statement, with state broadcaster CCTV saying in a statement that it would no longer broadcast the preseason games, and media company Tencent, which has in recent years been responsible for live streaming NBA games to Chinese audiences, says it will suspend its ties with the NBA. According to Tencent, they averaged more than 3 million viewers per game last year, with a total audience of almost 500 million. In addition, of the 25 official partners on the NBA China website, 13 are Chinese companies. Eleven of them have already cut or suspended operations with the NBA.

Obviously, the NBA should not take an official stance on this complex issue. It should, however, publicly condemn China for using its economic influence to suppress free speech in America. Members of Congress have even pushed the NBA to suspend operations entirely in China.

Nets owner Joe Tsai, the Taiwanese cofounder of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, has also criticized Morey, calling his comments “damaging” to the efforts the NBA has made in China. While admittedly Tsai is in a unique position, being that most team owners are white men rather than people of color, his comments did not take a position and appeared to be an effort to placate Beijing and keep the Nets strong interests in China. Many around the league are doing the same thing, such as Harden and Fertitta’s public apologies.

The NBA cannot cave to Chinese demands. It cannot sacrifice its supposed values for profits however tempting. It should have never apologized for Morey’s tweet and should have taken a stronger stance to defend him. The NBA is in a bad middle ground at the moment. From one side, Americans are criticizing them for not defending Morey more strongly. On the other hand, the Chinese are criticizing them for not condemning the comment and punishing Morey. The NBA needs to take a stand against China and show its employees it values them as people, not only for the money they can produce.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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