The NBA always finds a way to make the most dramatic headlines, even in the preseason. But while most are just silly stories about players and trade rumors, this week the league was caught in the middle of a controversy regarding a human rights crisis in China and Hong Kong.
Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted out an innocuous picture lending support to protesters in Hong Kong who have been fighting for independence for China in often violent circumstances over the past few weeks. The since-deleted tweet led to major backlash from Morey’s boss and the government in China including the country blacklisting Rockets games from its television service. Prior to the events that unfolded, the Rockets had been the most popular NBA team in the populous nation thanks to Yao Ming’s larger than life presence.
What followed was a perfect exhibit into the hypocrisy of the NBA.
The Rockets owner, Tilman Fertitta, immediately distanced himself from Morey, even liking Instagram comments calling for him to be fired. The NBA released statements (with subtle but important differences in the English and Mandarin versions) apologizing for Morey’s “regrettable” comments. Morey was seemingly forced to apologize. Even James Harden, the Rockets’ franchise player, was thrust into a situation where he felt compelled to apologize for his general manager’s call to stand with those pursuing freedom.
Look, international relations are a tough and nuanced topic and there’s rarely a right answer. But this is one of those times when there isn’t a different side to take. There is an oppressor pretending that everything within their borders is greener than the other side while they violently beat down on protesters – an oppressor, mind you, that for years has been rounding up Muslims and other minority groups in the country into concentration camps.
The hypocrisy of the NBA isn’t just that it immediately apologized for someone who took a stand for a just cause. It’s that for years, the league has profited off a not-always-accurate image as a beacon of progressive politics in the sports world. While the NFL caught flack for blackballing Colin Kaepernick, the NBA’s reputation grew and it was routinely met with cries of “This league!” every time it took an easy position against Donald Trump or the anti-trans bathroom bill in North Carolina.
And therein lies the issue. The NBA has been progressive but only in situations where it did not hurt the bottom line. In fact, in many of those instances, the league’s position on a societal issue only served to build its business.
But they won’t make that sort of stand against China because, well, it may be the biggest market for the league outside of North America. A league whose teams routinely generate sales of billions of dollars every time they change owners cannot stand to lose out on the potential revenue from the most populous country on the planet.
And so, the NBA will try to remedy this situation, not by taking a stand for human rights or by having compassion for the people risking their lives to fight for their freedom. But by continuing to send their athletes and their business to a country that has and will continue to oppress its people.
The Los Angeles Lakers will be among the league’s exports this week with two games planned against the Brooklyn Nets (owned by Taiwanese-Canadian billionaire Joseph Tsai who disappointingly called the Hong Kong protests a “separatist movement” in decrying Morey’s tweet). Eyes will be on LeBron James and others to give their thoughts on the topic but, unlike the league, those players will not take a stand for fear of losing endorsements and being reprimanded by the NBA.
If you have an eye for business, perhaps you will find this a difficult and precarious position for the NBA. Having been born in a Muslim-majority country with its own set of oppressive governances, I have a hard time feeling that way. The NBA is not only not supporting the right side of history, but it is identifiably taking a stand with the oppressive regime that has committed human rights atrocities.
Call that a business decision all you will. Call it a difficult decision.
But until the NBA proves that being a catalyst for social justice is more than a facade and a timely decision when it doesn’t hurt the cash in their pockets, cool it on calling it “the best league.” You don’t get to choose when to be progressive.