The NBA finds itself in a wild quagmire that none of us could have predicted a week ago. Popular Rockets GM Daryl Morey tweeted support of Hong Kong protestors, Houston owner Tilman Fertitta quickly disavowed it, and the tweet got deleted. But the story wasn't over. Tencent, the NBA's broadcasting partner in China, suspended ties with the Rockets, who have been far and away the Association's most popular team in the Republic dating back to Yao Ming. Later, Morey expressed regret in a tweet that felt a lot like a hostage situation, the NBA gave a blasé statement, and in between Morey's job was reportedly in jeopardy or it wasn't.
I'm not going to sit here and pretend like I know everything or even very much about these complicated protests in Hong Kong, but Morey was advocating for people fighting for democracy, and not to be controlled by a Communist state. This wouldn't be a very controversial thing for him to tweet about if said Communist state did not present enormous commerce opportunities for Fertitta and the NBA.
Over the last several years, the NBA has cultivated an image around inclusivity and equality. From LeBron James and his then-Heat teammates wearing "I Can't Breathe" shirts to Adam Silver pulling the All-Star Game out of Charlotte amidst controversy over a transgender bathroom law to abandoning the term "owner," the Association has sought to be at the forefront of progressivism. Players like James and coaches like Steve Kerr and Gregg Popovich have been outspoken in repudiation of Donald Trump. These are all things that are by and large approved of by the NBA's base audience of younger fans and people in big cities.
But the NBA also does big business in China -- they just extended their digital streaming deal with Tencent this past summer; last season 490 million people streamed NBA games in China and Game 6 of the NBA finals had an audience of 21 million people there -- and you can't do big business in China without the cooperation of their government.
It's not just the league office -- the superstars and even non-superstars have massive shoe deals and do lucrative sponsored exhibition tours. I'd be willing to bet you're not going to hear a strong statement from LeBron James in support of Morey this week. As Fran Fraschilla succinctly stated, "Those NBA stars sell a lot of sneakers in China. You’re not going to hear a peep out of them this week."
The NBA was juxtaposed a lot with the NFL as Colin Kaepernick's kneeling protests leave him unemployed while objectively worse quarterbacks like Nathan Peterman, DeShone Kizer, and Blaine Gabbert cash checks. While the NBA has more tolerance for its players being individually outspoken and even leverages that from a marketing perspective, it bears mentioning in this conversation that Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf believes he was blackballed from the NBA in the 1990s for the same reason as Kaepernick. David Stern, who chided the NFL earlier this year in saying Kaepernick would still be employed in the NBA, imposed a rule about standing for the national anthem in the 1980s, and the only player who challenged it found himself out of the league.
When the NBA pulled out of the All-Star Game in Charlotte, this was their statement:
“Our week-long schedule of All-Star events and activities is intended to be a global celebration of basketball, our league, and the values for which we stand, and to bring together all members of the NBA community — current and former players, league and team officials, business partners, and fans,” said the NBA in a statement. “While we recognize that the NBA cannot choose the law in every city, state, and country in which we do business, we do not believe we can successfully host our All-Star festivities in Charlotte in the climate created by HB2.”
Note the "values for which we stand" portion of the statement. In May of this year, Amnesty International reported that "Transgender people in China are performing highly dangerous surgery on themselves and buying unsafe hormone treatments on the black market because it is almost impossible for them to access the health care they urgently need." The league, which is holding preseason games between the Nets and Lakers in China this week, gave a statement about the Morey situation that was more measured in its wording:
The NBA took its business elsewhere from North Carolina in a campaign for inclusivity, but is treading a careful line with China where much more long-term money is at stake. To be fair, this is a very tricky situation. As you can tell from new Nets owner Joe Tsai calling the Hong Kong protestors "separatists" in an open letter, there is complete rigidity from the side of China here, and it's probably not a stretch to say that the NBA essentially has to be willfully agnostic about non-democratic governance to keep growing their pie there or even maintain what they've got.
But on the other hand, this whole saga also feels a little bit like the scene in Back to School when the stuck-up professor is castigating Dean Martin for admitting Rodney Dangerfield's Thornton Melon as a freshman and naming a building after him, calling it unethical and dishonorable. Dean Martin, knowing the professor is right, retorts, "In all fairness to Mr. Melon here, it was a really big check."