There is more nuance to the NBA’s relationship with China than some politicians will lead you to believe.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver addressed a bit of that nuance in an interview with CNN’s Bob Costas on Tuesday, while passing any moral authority to the federal government on the subject of whether American companies should be conducting business with China, considering the country’s human rights violations.
According to Silver, the NBA’s relationship with China began in the late 1970s, when then-Washington Bullets owner Abe Pollin took his team to play in Beijing. It has since grown exponentially, including a pair of preseason games played between the Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets in October 2019.
“The thought was these cultural exchanges were critically important, especially in times when normal channels weren’t operating for diplomatic conversations,” Silver said during Tuesday’s interview. “As the years have gone on, the NBA has increased its presence in China, but always, until very recent history, at the encouragement of the State Department, of various administrations from both sides of the aisle. It was viewed as a really positive thing that we were exporting American values to China through the NBA.”
The NBA China Games 2019 became a global news story after Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted his support of protests in Hong Kong opposing China’s authoritarian rule in early October of last year. The Chinese government responded by removing the NBA from its state-owned television programming. Morey apologized, and all levels of the NBA softened rhetoric around the subject of China, especially as it relates to the government’s detainment of more than a million Uighur Muslims in the country.
Plenty of companies face similar questions of morality concerning China, but the NBA became the face of this debate when Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Republican Senator Ted Cruz were among those who co-signed a Congressional request for the league to suspend its business in China.
It has since become somewhat of a pet subject for politicians who oppose the NBA’s embrace of social justice issues and want to draw a straight line between the league’s financial relationship with an oppressive Chinese government and its opposition to oppression in the United States. Nuance is not really their thing.
This too became news when Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Missouri) made public a letter asking Silver why “Free Hong Kong” — along with “Support our Troops,” “Back the Blue” and “God Bless America” — were not listed among the approved social justices statements that players could wear on the backs of their jerseys.
“The truth is that your decisions about which messages to allow and which to censor — much like the censorship decisions of the Chinese Communist Party — are themselves statements about your association’s values,” Hawley wrote in July. “If I am right — if the NBA is more committed to promoting the CCP’s interests than to celebrating its home nation — your fans deserve to know that is your view.”
(Hawley’s thesis is inaccurate. The NBA merely approved messages suggested by its players’ association.)
President Donald Trump expressed similar sentiments in a Fox Sports Radio interview last month, saying, “The way they catered to China, the way they bowed to China, is a disgrace.” This despite Trump’s own considerable business ties to the country and his alleged request for reelection help from the government.
The NBA did not publicly comment on the matter, but Silver indirectly addressed this subject with Costas.
“I think those decisions are for our government, in terms of where American businesses should operate. I continue to believe that the people-to-people exchanges we’re seeing by playing in China are positive and it’s helping,” he said. “It helps cultures learn about each other. Again, it allows us to export American values to China. ... It’s my view that it’s been net positive to not move to disengagement, that that’s not good for the world, and that superpowers like the U.S. and China need to find ways to continue to operate together.”
The NBA benefits financially from its relationship with the Chinese government, and silence on the subject of China’s authoritarianism opens the door for legitimate criticism. But it is possible that the outspokenness of NBA players on matters of social justice could impact how their fans in China perceive injustices in their own country, and that could make a greater cultural impact over time than simply ending the relationship.
On the other hand, the NBA could also send a message to its fans in China by cutting ties and citing human rights atrocities as the reason. Whether that moves the Chinese government on that matter is doubtful, and a multi-billion-dollar American business would be the worse for wear. After all, economic implications are a primary reason why Hawley’s pleas to withdraw American businesses from China have gone unanswered.
Nuance is often lost when you try to tie politics, business and morality into a tidy bow.
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