The NBA has received deserved criticism for caving to the demands of the Chinese government to preserve their business relationship. Much of that criticism has focused on the NBA’s perceived hypocrisy.
The NBA has long positioned itself as the “woke” league. Teams wore warm-ups that supported Eric Garner. Their commissioner Adam Silver said he wanted players to be political and speak up for social inequities, as CNN reported:
Silver said the ‘sense of an obligation, social responsibility, a desire to speak up directly about issues that are important’ is something that’s been passed down over the decades. It’s ‘part of being an NBA player.’
Silver said the league wants NBA players to ‘be multi-dimensional people and fully participate as citizens.’
But after Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey’s tweet in favor of Hong Kong protesters jeopardized the NBA’s business dealings in China, it is hard to see how speaking up about important issues is part of being an NBA player — since no player spoke up in favor of democracy. James Harden certainly didn’t look like a multidimensional person when he stared into the camera and declared his unequivocal love of China, like he was in a weird cult in which, instead of sex, the cult leader controls his members via shoe contracts.
Days later, everyone in the NBA is saying exactly what China wants them to say. LeBron James claimed Morey “wasn’t educated” on the subject. After being called out by Trump for being too scared to criticize China, coaches Gregg Popovich and Steve Kerr fought back, not by saying anything critical of China or supportive of the Hong Kong protesters, but by criticizing Trump and AR-15s.
The NBA’s embrace of Chinese censorship is understandably drawing comparisons to the NFL’s debacle with Colin Kaepernick, but such comparisons are unfair because what the NBA is doing is much worse for two reasons.
First, Kaepernick purposefully made his protests part of the games. By kneeling during the national anthem, his political views were made front and center during the NFL’s television product, and it dominated NFL media. The fact that liberal politics invaded a football game alienated many viewers who disagreed with his protest, as well as many viewers who agreed with Kaepernick but just wanted to watch a football game instead of receive a lecture on race.
Conversely, the entire NBA controversy centered around a singular tweet from an executive’s personal account. Watching a basketball game, you wouldn’t even know the tweet existed unless you sought it out. Not to mention that China blocks Twitter from its citizens, so the “offended” parties couldn’t even read it if they wanted to. With Kaepernick, the NFL tried to police the presentation and content of its product and brand, while with Morey, the NBA is now policing the off-the-court private speech of its employees.
The second major difference between the controversies is the party applying pressure on each league. While there have been allegations of collusion against Kaepernick, it seems likely that each NFL team just independently concluded that a backup quarterback is not worth losing fans over. It just doesn’t make business sense to anger 10 percent of your loyal customers to bring in a politically toxic non-starter, especially when someone like Josh McCown will gladly be your backup without any fanfare until he’s 50 years old.
But the NBA’s pandering to China has little to do with fan reaction. The issue is not that people in China will turn off the NBA if they see Morey’s team on their TV sets. The issue is that because someone in the NBA said something in favor of the protesters, Chinese state-run TV made it so that Chinese fans couldn’t even turn on the NBA games if they wanted to.
The NBA is not listening to the voice of its fans — it is taking direct orders from the Communist Party of China. It is like the NBA is voluntarily subjecting itself to China’s social credit system (wherein people can lose points if they are caught praying) by allowing China to dictate what is said on each and every one of its employee’s personal social media feeds.
In the end, the difference between the leagues boils down to the fact that the NFL adhered to one of the classic tenets of capitalism: When you’re in the store, the customer is always right. Unfortunately, with its complete cowardice on China, the NBA adhered to a classic tenant of communism: No matter the time, place, or situation, Xi Jinping is always right.