Money over Morality: The NBA’s Shameful Capitulation to Tyranny

10th October 2019

From elementary to high school, whenever I would practice on the basketball hoop in front of my house, I’d imagine myself as then Phoenix Suns’ star point guard Steve Nash. 

A recipient of back-to-back Most Valuable Player awards, feared sharpshooter, passing wizard, and all-around basketball masterclass, Nash is widely considered to be one of the top-5 point guards ever to play the game. 

But he took a different route to success than most other NBA superstars. At 6 foot 3 inches, 180 pounds, and relatively groundbound, he lacked the natural athletic gifts of his competitors. Instead, he was able to make it, and indeed excel at basketball’s highest level through hard work and dedication to his craft. 

That’s why I admired Nash so much (aside from the degree of relatability I found in our shared genetic misfortune). He was an underdog who was able to meticulously pick apart opposing teams and players because his near-perfection of the things that he could control – his fundamentals, his basketball IQ, his leadership skills – enabled him to negate the disadvantages that he could not. 

I’m reminded of Nash’s blueprint, specifically its under-appreciation, in the current predicament involving the NBA and the Chinese government. 

Last Friday night, the general manager of the Houston Rockets Daryl Morey gave support to the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong in a since-deleted tweet. The tweet immediately received condemnation from numerous Chinese-government-aligned institutions and organizations. The Chinese Basketball Association suspended ties with the Houston Rockets over the statement. Chinese entertainment giant Tencent announced it would no longer stream Rockets games or the remainder of the NBA preseason. And the Chinese Consulate General in Houston promptly urged the Rockets to “correct the error.” 

And correct the error they did. Morey quickly succumbed to the pressure and apologized, insisting that he did not intend to “cause any offense to Rockets fans and friends of mine in China.” He went on to say that, since tweeting his support for the protestors, he had taken the opportunity to “hear and consider other perspectives.” We may never know which People’s Republic these “other perspectives” came from. 

The NBA officially responded to the Chinese outrage with a similarly-feckless statement, despite NBA Commissioner Adam Silver claiming that the organization was in full support of Morey. Even the Rockets’ best player James Harden joined in, declaring that he and fellow Rockets superstar Russel Westbrook, who was standing next to him at the time, “love China,” and that “they show us the most support and love so we appreciate them” – a defense so morally vacuous it tempts one to, if only for a moment, entertain the idea that when the right wing speech police suggest athletes “shut up and dribble,” they just might have a point. 

The human rights abuses of the Chinese government have been thoroughly documented, from concentration camps to forced organ harvesting. And while it might well be the case that James Harden isn’t fully aware of the situation there, the same cannot be said for Commissioner Silver, who oversees a relationship with China worth multiple billions of dollars. 

The NBA’s appeasement of the Chinese is even more shameful when we consider their track record of political activism within the United States. Like in 2017, for instance, when the league refused to hold its all-star weekend in Charlotte, North Carolina until state representatives repealed the hotly-debated “bathroom bill.” Or when a number of NBA players wore t-shirts during warmups that read “I can’t breathe” – an act of symbolic protest against what they saw as systemically racist police violence. When he was asked to address the player’s actions, Commissioner Silver reiterated that the NBA encourages its athletes to express their opinions on social issues, but added that it was preferred that they wore clothing made by the NBA’s official apparel provider, Adidas.

The NBA has shown it has no issue taking a stand for what it believes are human rights, or allowing its employees to do so, provided that the stance doesn’t get in the way of economic growth. 

Many of those who have knowledge of the evils taking place in China today wish for American industry to abstain entirely from dealing with the country. But this isn’t a realistic request, and in certain ways, it wouldn’t be a morally sound policy either. In terms of practicality, China is the second largest economic market in the world, which makes it difficult for American companies to refuse to do business there if they want to remain internationally competitive. More importantly, the people who just happened to have been born in China by-and-large have no complicity in the crimes committed by their government. In most cases, they are the victims of those crimes. Exposure to Western entertainment serves as a much-needed escape from the stresses of daily life in a police state, and also acts as a counterweight to the nationalist, anti American narrative pushed on them by the Communist Party. 

That being said, we should never kowtow to censorious demands. It should go without question that American companies operating domestically need not adhere to another country’s regulations around political speech. Additionally, the NBA, as well as other American organizations who participate in events in China, should stipulate before agreeing to attend that they will respect the freedom of their employees to say whatever they want. If this is unacceptable to the Chinese, then they have the right to cancel the events. They are a sovereign nation. But in doing so, the Party will be forced to assume the risks of whatever backlash may follow. In the case of the NBA, a complete censorship would entail depriving the over two billion diehard NBA fans throughout China of a central part of their identity and happiness – a move President Xi might calculate as being too risky to attempt. 

Just as Steve Nash focused on perfecting the parts of his game that were within his power to improve, the NBA should focus on what it can do within its means to help the people of China. The league may not have the sway to directly coerce China to change its stance on human rights. But they do have the ability to, at the very least, stay true to their stated policy of allowing its employees to freely speak their minds on difficult issues. Indeed, not only allowing them to speak their minds, but encouraging them to do so, regardless of how controversial their stances are or how they might affect the league’s bottom line. 

Hopefully, allowing for the free-flow of ideas will motivate more of the NBA to speak out on China’s tyranny, and in turn convince enough viewers and fans outside of China to petition their elected leaders to take concrete steps to stop it.