OPINION: Despite presenting progressive image, NBA folded as soon as earnings were threatened


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NBA fans react to a preseason game in Shanghai, China.

A commissioner of a global game had to have seen this coming.

Like David Stern before him, National Basketball Association (NBA) commissioner Adam Silver advocates for basketball’s ability to transcend international boundaries. As of right now, that is exactly what separates the league from the other major sports leagues in the United States. Yet now Silver and other NBA personalities are in defense mode.

Houston Rockets general manager Darryl Morey tweeted on Oct. 4 in support of Hong Kong’s independence protests. The tweet, now deleted, garnered a backlash from Chinese TV executives, NBA/China ambassadors and a sizeable amount of the hundreds of millions of Chinese fans.

What brewed from Morey’s tweet was an international discussion about a sports league’s pseudo-wokeness, the fragility of a billion-dollar partnership, freedom of speech, human rights and a clash of cultures. Politicians, journalists and American fans took shots at the NBA for its refusal to call out China for human rights violations. However, one has to wonder, why were people expecting any different from the league?

David Stern was always concerned about the game’s status in China. He’s seen the birth of the relationship between the league and China. From when the NBA was sending game tapes to Chinese TV for free in the ‘90s to the billion-dollar entanglement of today, politics have always been put to the side in favor of paychecks.

The NBA’s philosophy and the image have long been about inclusion, player individuality and front office and player freedoms to speak out.

“The NBA, beginning with David Stern and now with Adam Silver have meticulously created and shaped their image on certain issues,” DePaul professional lecturer Dan Azarro said.

Of course, it isn’t always perfect in practice.

Come 2004, the NBA had an image problem. The infamous Malice at the Palace brawl tainted the reputation of the league. In response to growing concerns from sponsors, the league introduced a dress code. Among the list of the banned artifacts were jerseys, hats, jeans, durags, t-shirts and large jewelry.

Opposers to the dress code saw the targeting of hip-hop and African American culture by league officials as a problem.

Yet, in the past decade, the NBA has been progressive. In 2014, TMZ released audio of LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling making racist and offensive comments about his assistant. Silver had the defining moment of his short career as NBA commissioner when he held a press conference banning Sterling for life.

In 2016, the NBA refused to hold its all-star game in Charlotte, North Carolina after the state passed the HB2 bill restricting transgender people from using their preferred bathroom.

Now, Silver is being blasted for his reluctance to stand up to China. There was believed to be precedent set by Silver and the NBA itself for human rights and activism. Yet, this China situation is on a scale that Silver and the league have never seen, and they’re folding.

The Sterling and Charlotte decisions were almost unanimously supported by NBA fans, players and personnel.

Yet now the NBA could lose billions of dollars if China decides to pull advertising, sponsorship and support. The timing of all of this is one of the biggest points of interest.

“China is the largest group where you can have [a brand] and they love American Basketball,” Azzaro said. “It’s coming at a bad time where you have a trade war going on and it just adds into it.”

The NBA isn’t built for this. In those other situations, they could have lost money if they didn’t act. Here, they will lose money if they do act. Why are we now expecting the NBA to say something and take a historical stance? This could very well be swept under the rug after the season begins.

“The Morey incident, unfortunately, dragged the NBA into a dilemma,” said Li Jin, director of DePaul’s Chinese Studies Program. “But I think not all of the NBA’s Chinese fans genuinely think that is a big issue despite the overwhelming critical voices from China you read in the western media reports. I believe the NBA will survive this incident unscathed.”

Stern knew about this possibility before Twitter was even a thing. Now, Silver has choices to make. These are choices where his personal feelings toward the issue don’t matter. With immense pressure coming from China, the owners he works for and the fans, it’s no surprise that he is ducking the issue. Now, it’s time to see if this will be as historic as one might think.