Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey sparked an international incident with one tweet that has managed to place the NBA at the forefront of the question of how American businesses should approach partnerships with China.
The tweet, sent on Friday and quickly deleted, featured an image offering support for protesters in Hong Kong who opposed a since-pulled piece of legislation that would allow prisoners to be extradited to mainland China for trials. The protests continue for various reasons, including a push for democratic elections, as explained by the Hong Kong Free Press.
Since June, large-scale peaceful protests have morphed into sometimes violent displays of dissent over Beijing’s encroachment, democracy, alleged police brutality, surveillance and other community grievances. …
Demonstrators have been demanding a complete withdrawal of the [extradition] bill, a fully independent probe into police behaviour, amnesty for those arrested, universal suffrage and a halt to the characterisation of protests as “riots.”
However, many protesters and democrats have said they will not accept a partial concession from Lam, repeating their slogan: “The five core demands, we will accept nothing less.”
The aftermath of Morey’s tweet has seen the Chinese government, the CBA (headed by ex-Rocket Yao Ming), broadcast partners, and Chinese sponsors all severing ties with the Rockets and NBA preseason games getting pulled from China Central Television, even if they do not involve Houston. Adam Silver has tried to thread the needle with statements on the matter, offering understanding for how the tweet offended those in China, but also offering support for members of the NBA to have the freedom to speak out on the matter. China didn’t agree with that assessment and continues to cancel events, although Thursday’s scheduled preseason game between the Lakers and Nets occurred.
Players from both of those teams have apparently expressed frustrations with Adam Silver for the situation they’re being put in during their stint abroad. Among the chief issues is that they’re going to be asked questions about the issue that they aren’t comfortable speaking on, particularly while in China.
That’s an understandable grievance, but players and coaches from around the league are choosing not to speak on the issue domestically as well, which has become the latest topic of conversation in the story. Steve Kerr, Doc Rivers, and others have been asked about the situation and their thoughts and have declined to speak on it, citing a lack of full understanding of the topic at hand. That is an understandable stance to take on a significant issue with this magnitude, but given the outspoken nature of Kerr, Gregg Popovich, LeBron James, and many others about social and political issues facing the United States, some have called them hypocrites. Notably, president Donald Trump, who is a frequent target of criticism, challenged Kerr and, to a lesser extent, Popovich.
James is in China currently, and whether he’d speak out on it or not, that is certainly not the place to do so given how the Chinese government handles dissenters. It should not, however, come as a significant surprise that there haven’t been any outspoken voices on the issue for two chief reasons.
The first is the one that most everyone has pointed to: money. The NBA makes a tremendous amount of cash through its partnership with China, as do sneaker companies, who sell tons of shoes from their top stars in the market — Derrick Rose still has a signature sneaker through adidas because of how well it sells in China. As David Stern highlighted years ago when he was beginning discussions with bringing the NBA to the country, this issue has always been a possibility .
Thirteen years ago I did a story for Sports Illustrated on then-Commissioner David Stern. As we pinballed around from Barcelona to Rome to Paris to Moscow, the gnarly subject of China came up a few times. This is an excerpt from that story: pic.twitter.com/rHbUhwlENa
— Jack McCallum (@McCallum12) October 8, 2019
As such, we can safely assume that folks are being told — at least for now while the league is trying to diffuse tensions and two teams are in China — to defer on issuing comments. The number one rule of being an employee, even a crucial and highly-paid one, is to never be the reason your boss or employer lost a ton of money. It’s the thing that the critics have pointed to, insisting its hypocritical to speak out on human rights issues only when it doesn’t jeopardize your employment status.
Maybe that’s true and all of us should be so virtuous as to put our livelihoods at risk for doing what’s right for humanity as a whole, but it’s also an argument presented in bad faith to make the president’s frequent critics look bad. That’s made clear by the fact that in Hong Kong, nothing changed from last Friday when Morey sent that tweet to now, and when the Lakers and Nets made their way to China, there were no petitions to cancel the games and sever ties between the league and China. Only after it became a story and the NBA, the league that’s been the loudest as a collective in supporting players speaking out politically and socially, found itself jammed up did those in Washington suddenly recognize China’s human rights issues and call on the NBA to answer to them.
The other part is that this is an issue whose details are foreign to most Americans, not just NBA players, coaches, and executives. The Hong Kong protests have gotten brief play in American media, typically focused on any violence that occurs rather than the issues presented and sandwiched into a short block around election and impeachment coverage. Without doing actual research on the subject, one has very likely and understandably gone the last year without a real understanding of what is happening in Hong Kong. There is something to be said for declining to speak on an issue that one does not fully comprehend, and in that regard, this issue is a far cry from the domestic, social, and political issues we’ve seen these players and coaches speak out on in the past.
Black NBA players have a lifetime of experience with racism, discrimination, and the issue of police violence and brutality. While not issues that exclusively effect the black community, they are matters that black players, no matter whether they’re African-American or hail from overseas, have been impacted by and dealt with on a very personal level. We’ve even seen it pop up twice in recent years with NBA players being the targets of police brutality: Sterling Brown and Thabo Sefolosha. Proximity to an issue makes a person more passionate about it, and for the black community, these are massive issues and those that find themselves with a platform find it crucial to use it to highlight those issues to those privileged enough not to deal with them on a daily basis.
Gun violence is the other major issue we’ve seen players and coaches discuss, which again, stems from the unfortunate familiarity it’s become for those in the United States. For Steve Kerr, it hits extremely close to home, as his father was shot and killed in Lebanon in 1984, while Steve was a freshman at Arizona. As a result, Kerr has spoken passionately and eloquently on the subject. He’s not alone in speaking out on gun violence, as others have spoken out as well, because for any American, the issue of mass shootings is extremely familiar, as these have become an unnecessarily frequent occurrence in our country.
While there’s an argument to be made that human rights are human rights, people are always going to be more comfortable speaking out on issues that they have a deep understanding of and conviction about. Maybe as the season wears on, more voices will emerge in the NBA supporting Hong Kong, but it seems unlikely. The financial ramifications of taking a position so vehemently opposed by China plays a significant role, of that there is no doubt, but players, like everyone else, will always be more apt to speak on issues they’re more familiar with and that they’ve seen and felt the direct effects of.