The NBA’s China Posture Is Indefensible. It’s Also Inevitable.

Photo: David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

Last Friday Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted out an image that said “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.” The NBA is still reeling from the ramifications.

Morey’s tweet, which has led to the Chinese government and the Chinese Basketball Association to cease cooperation with the Rockets and the league, has exposed a fault line in what had been (justifiably) considered professional sports’ most progressive and forward-thinking league. Since the tweet, the NBA has called what Morey said “regrettable” and “offensive,” faced serious backlash from American legislators (if you ever wanted to know what would bring Beto O’Rourke and Ted Cruz together, it’s this), and then backtracked (sort of) in a statement early Tuesday morning, asserting its commitment to free speech, or something. But it has been undeniably jarring to see a major organization like the NBA kowtowing and pandering so shamelessly to the Chinese government. If you’re wondering why NBA commissioner Adam Silver might feel like he has no choice, it doesn’t entirely have to do with the league’s business in China: It might have to do with China’s business with its players.

If there has been one doctrine of the mostly successful so far Adam Silver era as commissioner of the NBA, it has not been raising revenue, social justice, or labor peace. It has been his insight — one still unshared by the commissioners of the other major North American professional sports — that the way you get owners and players to get along is to treat the players like owners. Every NBA player is a businessman by definition, but Silver’s brilliance has been to treat them that way, like they are the power brokers they are all desperately eager to show they are. Silver has been able to treat the NBA’s constant pursuit of every possible revenue stream as not only the norm, but in fact, in the players’ absolute best interest. NBA players consider themselves entrepreneurs first and athletes second, and Silver has catered to that to his and the league’s benefit at every turn, from his initial fateful decision to ban Donald Sterling from the league to his encouragement of his players’ fights for social justice. Players feel Adam Silver is one of them because Silver has encouraged them to think of themselves almost as small-business affiliates within the larger NBA structure.

It is perhaps best to think of this specific strategy, then, when considering the backlash to the Morey tweet. Morey eventually deleted the tweet, saying, “I did not intend my tweet to cause any offense to Rockets fans and friends of mine in China” (which is very different than apologizing for what he said), but it was far too late for the Chinese, who, because of Yao Ming’s longtime association with the Rockets, have been a supporter and broadcaster of the Rockets. Ming is the current president of the Chinese Basketball Association, which announced that it was immediately ending its association with the Rockets, and The People’s Daily, the Chinese national newspaper, said, “”Morey’s position is hurtful to Chinese basketball fans and is also an affront to the Chinese people” and warned that corporations that have spoken up about Hong Kong have “paid a heavy price.” That’s probably why Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta immediately tweeted, “Morey does NOT speak for the @HoustonRockets. Our presence in Tokyo is all about the promotion of the @NBA internationally and we are NOT a political organization.” But the NBA went even further, using the word “offended.” Considering China’s history of human-rights abuses — not to mention the shooting of a 14-year-old boy during the Hong Kong protests this past weekend — the backlash to the NBA not standing behind Morey and against China has been swift.

But Silver knows what he’s doing. He can side with China — which has increasingly become a vital business partner to the league, with an office in China, a Shanghai team in the NBA2K Gaming league, and of course, partnerships with countless apparel companies that have inextricable deals China — and not have to sweat a backlash from the one group of people who can cause him actual trouble: his players.

I regret to inform you, America, but the senator from Florida is right here:

Sure, Rubio is being inconsistent and weaselly and reliably Rubio-ish — hearing Marco Rubio argue that someone else should speak up about injustice in their own organization is quite a trip — but he is also … absolutely correct? NBA players have been trailblazers in recent years in their willingness, even their obligation, to speak up about social injustice, and, considering how much LeBron James himself has moved the needle on student athlete compensation (the California governor signed the Fair Pay for Play Bill on the set of LeBron’s TV show), it’s tough to argue they haven’t made some legitimate breakthroughs. (Let us also never forget how LeBron called the President “U Bum” on Twitter … and it actually got Trump to shut up.) But getting them to speak up about China? James, Stephen Curry, and James Harden spent large chunks of their summer promoting their interests in China, and Dwyane Wade (one of the most activist athletes in all of sports) has a lifetime contract with Chinese sneaker company Li-Ning. As much as they have tied up with that nation in their personal brands and their shoe contracts? Yeah, mum’s gonna be the word.

Actually, “mum” would be an improvement. Harden, who is only a Rocket because Morey traded for him, on Sunday stood with teammate Russell Westbrook (another Morey acquisition) and said, flat out, “We apologize. You know, we love China.” He didn’t say “no comment” or “I just want to stay out of it and play basketball.” He said “we love China.” Players know what side their bread is buttered on.

Players might not be as shameless in their devotion to their Chinese interests as Harden or new Nets owner Joe Tsai, who just came out and said the hurt that Morey caused “will take a long time to repair” after going on an odd mansplain-y detour about the Opium Wars. (Rich people!) But don’t expect James to speak up on this one. It is one thing to speak out on injustice in our country; you can actually sell more Nike shoes that way. But going after China is just bad business. What NBA players have done by speaking out on social issues in the United States has made an important difference, and it will inspire future generations of players to do the same. But the bottom line is going to come first when it comes to China. Adam Silver has found another issue in which his interests and the interests of his players absolutely align. It won’t do the people of Hong Kong any good. It might make him, and his players, look bad in the eyes of Beto O’Rourke and Ted Cruz, but they don’t buy, or make, enough shoes to matter.

The NBA’s China Posture Is Indefensible and Inevitable