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In Its Fight With China, the NBA Shows Its True Colors

The dust-up belies the pro basketball's reputation as the "good" league.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Freedom is good and worth fighting for. From what we know, this was the platitude that was sloshing around Daryl Morey’s brain on Sunday when the Houston Rockets general manager posted an image on Twitter expressing support for the pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. The anodyne and approachable graphic—“Fight for Freedom, Stand With Hong Kong”—seemed intended to appeal to no-information users looking to feel slightly better about themselves by retweeting it. Who doesn’t like freedom?

This is self-soothing disguised as online activism. People like Morey, who by his own admission didn’t know much about the protests, can convince themselves that they’re helping, even if they have only a vague sense of how. They are willing to raise awareness of an unfamiliar cause, or endorse a movement they don’t understand, if it triggers the right response. This is common online behavior, and Morey, a sort of online everyman, likely didn’t give it much thought beyond that. It was, like so much everyday content production, an odd mix of activity and passivity, an attempt to raise awareness without being really aware of anything at all. 

If Morey had thought his now-infamous tweet through, he would have remembered that the Rockets are the most popular NBA team in China, and that commenting on Chinese politics, no matter how incidentally, was bound to get him into trouble. Morey’s idle post wasn’t just noticed by the Chinese government. It was taken very, very seriously, because this kind of bad faith reading is what authoritarian regimes specialize in. And as a result, Morey—who was by no means trying to change the world—succeeded in ravaging the league’s relationship with its second-most important market. To crib a phrase from Kendrick Lamar, it’s funny how one tweet can fuck up the game.

This wasn’t your average international sports biz incident. The controversy also highlighted the contradictions that arise when a professional sports league that presents itself as morally credible invests heavily in a country where human rights violations are a matter of course. And when China’s zero-tolerance reaction made it clear that certain kinds of speech were simply off-limits, the league’s tepid response wasn’t just the opposite of moral clarity. It was a reminder that corporate entities, far from being activist mouthpieces, are in fact always embroiled in these repressive dynamics.

Almost immediately, it became apparent that Morey hadn’t been taking a principled stance on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement. He deleted the tweet, as if that could make the whole thing go away. Next, again via Twitter, came a carefully worded apology that pleaded ignorance of the Hong Kong situation and dabbled in both sides-ism. The Rockets organization was similarly penitent, and rumors began to circulate that Morey, one of the league’s most talented executives, could lose his job. Having a successful basketball team is good for business. But if winning games comes at the expense of losing millions of dollars in broadcast rights and sponsorship deals, then even a talent like Morey becomes disposable. 

But however much the Rockets may have wanted to fire Morey, it was never going to happen. Since the days when it policed the dress of its players in an attempt to shed the sport’s “thuggish” image, the NBA has gone to great pains to paint itself as America’s “progressive” sports league, where members of its largely black work force are encouraged to speak their mind on social issues—especially when it comes to expressing anti-Trump sentiment. Morey getting run out of town for accidentally having a political opinion, especially one so in-line with mainstream liberalism, would be decidedly off-brand. The last thing the NBA wanted was to make a martyr of Morey, or risk turning him into an Oxford-clad version of Colin Kaepernick. 

The league’s initial response to the Morey fiasco was garbled, vague, and contradictory. It sought to simultaneously contain the damage done to the relationship with China and reassure fans that individuals having opinions about politics—especially when those opinions were as banal as “democracy is good”—was a core “value” of the league. The statement, wishy-washy as it was, met with a swift backlash, one compounded by an open letter from Brooklyn Nets owner Joseph Tsai, in which the Chinese national suggested that people with no grasp of the situation in Hong Kong should, in effect, stick to sports. It actually would have been a fair criticism of Morey, except for the fact that the Hong Kong-China relationship is remarkably low on moral ambiguity, and to insist that there’s a great complexity there is a pretty transparent way of siding with, or at least being sympathetic to, the latter. And let’s not forget that Tsai, who as the founder of the mega-conglomerate Alibaba has benefited more than literally anyone from China’s authoritarian-capitalist model, is hardly a neutral voice on the issue.

The league’s failure to mount a full-throated defense of the Rockets’ GM, and its insistence on acknowledging the Chinese government’s unhappiness, were taken as an indication that the NBA’s fealty to its bottom line was getting in the way of its conscience. But the problem is not that the NBA was expected to take any particular position on the Hong Kong protests, or that it wants to make money. It was the league’s refusal to play along with its own narrative. The NBA wasn’t supposed to be this cynical, and here it had become a victim of the standard that it had quite cannily set for itself.

This made it susceptible to attacks from conservatives who have a longstanding beef with the league over its perceived liberalism. Ted Cruz relished the opportunity to point out that a left-leaning institution was siding with a repressive commie regime, while a Bari Weiss op-ed in The New York Times pilloried the league for failing to live up to its “woke” reputation, which for her suggested that all “wokeness” was a sham. Predictably, Donald Trump himself eventually got involved. When Warriors coach Steve Kerr—who has been sharply critical of this administration—refused to say much of anything about the Morey situation, the president gleefully accused Kerr of being a coward and a hypocrite. When Kerr suggested that America should worry about its own issues, and mused that “the world’s a complex place and there’s more gray than black and white,” it sure seemed like Trump had a point.  

It’s a problem that Kerr refused to condemn China for its human rights abuses. But the real problem is that Kerr, and star players like Stephen Curry and the Rockets’ James Harden, were unable to weigh in on what was a clear-cut free speech issue. Foreign governments leveraging corporate interests shouldn’t be able to control what Americans say. It’s such an easy, obvious point that a truly bipartisan group of lawmakers—imagine Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Tom Cotton agreeing on almost anything else—sent an open letter to the NBA urging it to sever ties with China altogether. There has been a moment of national unity at the NBA’s expense, one where liberals and conservatives can both express disgust at the league’s fecklessness (though admittedly, it does sort of feel like liberals are feeding a conservative meme).

The league, for its part, has attempted to course-correct. On Tuesday, Commissioner Adam Silver held a press conference that pushed the league’s “values” back to the fore, affirming that they would always take precedence over business. Maybe Silver was responding to domestic pressure. Or maybe it was because China, far from being content to prove a point and move on, seems to be taking increasingly extreme measures to distance itself from the NBA. At this point, for Silver, perhaps hedging against China’s interests had become a lost cause, and being noble to shore up support at home is the league’s only real option here.

But it may be too late for the NBA to do the right thing—in this case, or in any situation going forward. It would ring hollow. Not because the NBA was on the wrong side, but because it never really cared about the difference between right and wrong in the first place.