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The NBA’s Bow To Chinese Repression Was Reprehensible


As I was boarding my DC to Dallas flight, I read on Twitter that Chinese companies were suspending their ties with the Houston Rockets over a pro-Hong Kong tweet by its general manager, Daryl Morey. Assuming the NBA team had sided with Morey over Chinese communists, I congratulated @HoustonRockets and the league for standing by one of its own. I should have known better, but a part of me wants to believe this is what any American company would do.

Except the NBA apologized to China for Morey’s comments. According to the New York Times’ Sopan Deb, an NBA spokesperson issued the following statement:

We recognize that the views expressed by Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey have deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China, which is regrettable. While Daryl has made it clear that his tweet does not represent the Rockets or the NBA, the values of the league support individuals’ educating themselves and sharing their views on matters important to them. We have great respect for the history and culture of China and hope that sports and the NBA can be used as a unifying force to bridge cultural divides and bring people together.

Look, I work in corporate PR and I get it. China is a high-priority market for the NBA and I am sympathetic to communication teams that need to formulate responses to complex issues, but the Rockets’ statement is pathetic.

The only appropriate response from an American corporation in such a situation—including those trying to steer clear of international political controversies—is some variation of “We stand by our people.” Period. If a company cannot bring itself to say that, then it should say nothing at all.

Sadly, the NBA’s dastardly comments were not the result of PR malpractice. It is an accurate reflection of corporate America’s cowardice and pitiful moral neutrality on significant matters of strategic national interest.

While large U.S. companies enjoy all the benefits of doing business in the United States—such as unparalleled property rights, legal protections, a society that values entrepreneurship, and a favorable tax climate—too many don’t really view themselves as, well, American, or even care for the duties that come with citizenship, like standing up for liberty and human rights.

As we saw with Hollywood appeasing communist apparatchiks, the problem of American companies acquiescing China’s censorious demands is not limited to professional basketball. The fact is that contemporary corporate culture rarely promotes American patriotism or national unity as a virtue; the opposite is true, actually.

This became apparent to me earlier this year when a retired Fortune 100 CEO told a small group of us at a gathering in Miami that “no corporate executive has spent more time in Beijing than me” while emphasizing that he is “ultimately a global citizen.” The worst part is he meant this as a good thing, and there are clearly other executives—the kind that Michael Anton famously referred to as “the Davos class” in his Flight 93 essay—who think the same way.

There are many reasons for corporate America’s indifference to our national interests, including MBA programs’ preoccupations with shaping “global citizens” instead of developing leaders who care about their country. To be clear, I am not calling for corporate jingoism. However, our country’s academic curricula and c-suite culture are long overdue for a reboot and realignment with America’s interests in the 21st century.

For now, the NBA should remember what and who the N in their name stands for. When they forget, American consumers must remind them who their “fans and friends” truly are.