The NBA Can't Change China; Deal with It

The league's response to the tweet that enraged China has drawn critics from the right and left, but few seem willing to acknowledge the relationship between the two is long and complicated.
photo of Howard BeckHoward Beck@@HowardBeckNBA Senior WriterOctober 19, 2019

The People's Republic of China is the worst abuser of human rights in the world, according to the U.S. State Department.

China has imprisoned more than a million Uighur Muslims in "re-education" camps and forced the assimilation of millions more, according to Human Rights Watch.

China intimidates, harasses and detains journalists.

China arrests dissidents, censors the internet and controls its news media.

The NBA makes a small fortune doing business in China—hundreds of millions of dollars per year.

These are all documented facts. They are true today, were true last week and were true long before Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted his support for pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong, inciting an international firestorm.

Nothing about the NBA, China or the NBA's investment in China has changed since that tweet was sent (and deleted) on Oct. 4. Nothing except the outrage.

Suddenly, every last pundit, politician and Twitter egg has an opinion on this fraught partnership—and on the need for NBA players to do, well, something about it.

"Conveniently silent," Laura Ingraham sneered on Fox News. "No spine," huffed Fox Sports host Clay Travis. "The NBA chose its pocketbook over its principles," chided Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

All across the media landscape, the sanctimony flowed. It's a rather curious phenomenon.

The NBA has been involved in China for 40 years. China is no different today than it was in 2008, when NBA China was launched, or in 2004, when the NBA played its first preseason games there, or in 1979, when it staged its first exhibition game there.

China was a human-rights violator when Beijing hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics, and when it was awarded the 2022 Winter Games. The ATP and WTA were just there a few weeks ago for the China Open—a tournament that's been operating for 15 years.

The sports world has been mining the lucrative Chinese market, with its 1.4 billion potential consumers, for years, while collectively averting its gaze from all the unpleasant entanglements that come with it.

Yet no one demanded a political stand from the leagues and athletes who passed through. Until now.

Right-wing bloviators who once told LeBron James to "shut up and dribble" now castigate him for his silence. The people who told Steve Kerr to stick to sports now demand his opinions on China.

And those on the left who for years cheered the NBA players' social consciousness are now ripping them for their reticence. (That group, at least, deserves credit for consistency.)

Across the political spectrum, they are charging the NBA with hypocrisy, greed and self-interest. Of failing to be the "woke" enterprise it purported to be. So NBA players speak out on gun control and police brutality in the U.S. but are muted about human rights in China?

Cynics gleefully seized on the apparent contradiction. Yet so much of the backlash is disingenuous, or fantastically simplistic.

LeBron James' decision to not criticize China over their position on the Hong Kong protests has drawn criticism from both sides of the political spectrum in the U.S.
LeBron James' decision to not criticize China over their position on the Hong Kong protests has drawn criticism from both sides of the political spectrum in the U.S.Zhong Zhi/Getty Images

Let's stipulate several things right away: China's policies are abhorrent. The crackdown in Hong Kong should be condemned. Morey's support for the protestors was justified. His right to express that support should be defended. That he felt pressured to delete the tweet is alarming. The NBA's initial statements on the controversy were weak and muddled. Its relationship with China is certainly problematic. That relationship deserves scrutiny and reflection.

But this still-simmering debate needs a reality check.

The NBA is, at its core, a business. Like any other business, it exists to make money, primarily for team owners and players, who split basketball revenues on a 50-50 basis. Morey's tweet prompted multiple Chinese sponsors to sever ties, costing the Rockets and the NBA untold millions.

To expect NBA players and coaches, in the midst of all this, to wade into an international firestorm and undermine their employer is probably asking too much—no matter how many times they've been lauded for their social consciousness.

That James and Kerr speak passionately on racism and police brutality doesn't obligate them to take a public stand on China. Demurring doesn't make them less woke, just human.

Is there some self-interest at work? Sure. But we all make those kinds of calculations every day, choosing when to take risks and when to choose self-preservation.

Colin Kaepernick sacrificed his career to protest police killings of unarmed African Americans. Muhammad Ali sacrificed his standing to protest the Vietnam War. Their actions were noble. But we cannot hold every athleteor any person—to that standard.

Choosing when to speak out, what causes to champion and what risks to take is up to the individual.

"It's every athlete's right to use their position and their platform the way that they see fit, not the way that somebody else sees fit," says Etan Thomas, who played nine years in the NBA and now writes about the intersection of sports and politics.

To those demanding that players take a stand on Hong Kong, Thomas says flatly, "It's not about what you want"a point he also made in a recent essay for the Guardian.

"People want to use athletes as their parrots, as their mouthpieces," Thomas says. "They want to criticize them when they say something that they don't agree with, but then they want to push them to say something that falls in line with their agenda. I just don't think that that's fair."

If you're disappointed that James or Stephen Curry isn't advocating for human rights in China, that's understandable. But ask yourself: Where is the line? Are players now obligated to comment on every crisis around the world? Should LeBron be forced to take a stand on Syria and North Korea? On the deforestation of the Amazon?

The NBA has a long history of doing business with China, including staging exhibition games in the country starting in 2004, when the Rockets played the Kings.
The NBA has a long history of doing business with China, including staging exhibition games in the country starting in 2004, when the Rockets played the Kings.GREG BAKER/Associated Press

How about here at home? Many NBA owners support President Donald Trump, who has incited and emboldened racists; denigrated women and people of color; and caged immigrant children. Should we expect players to publicly slam the billionaires who run their league? Or is there a logical limit to all of this?

If speaking on some issues but not others is hypocritical, then the alternative is to not speak up on anythingwhich, frankly, is what most of the NBA's critics truly want: silence. Silence on police brutality. Silence on gun control. Silence on climate change. Silence on Trump.

The NBA may be conflicted on China, but it remains, unequivocally, this country's most progressive major sports league. Political activism in this league is embraced, even encouraged. NBA players and coaches speak freely about gun control, racism and Trumpwithout fear of recriminations or reprisals.

This was the first major North American sports league to have an openly gay player (Jason Collins), referees (Violet Palmer, Bill Kennedy) and executive (Rick Welts). It's the league that consistently earns the highest marks for racial and gender diversity. Eleven women are working as assistant coaches this season, and three women are on the officiating staffboth all-time highs.

No, NBA players never kneeled during the national anthem, as Kaepernick did. They didn't need symbolic gestures, because the NBA (unlike the NFL) supported their right to speak out directly on the issue of police violence.

And players exercised those rights—donning "I Can't Breathe" T-shirts to protest the killing of an unarmed Staten Island man named Eric Garner, and posing in hoodies to protest the killing of Trayvon Martin.

Enes Kanter routinely criticizes the authoritarian regime in his home country of Turkey. Kerr campaigns for gun control. Gregg Popovich speaks eloquently about racism and openly criticizes Trump.

No, the NBA is not upholding its own best ideals when it does business with China—or when it censors itself to protect that relationship. But that doesn't negate its work to foster diversity, tolerance and civic engagement here at home.

(Accusations that the NBA is bowing to China are also overwrought. Commissioner Adam Silver specifically defended Morey's right to express himself, enraging the Chinese government further. He rebuffed China's demands that Morey be fired. Morey has not been sanctioned nor disciplined. Nor did Morey apologize to China, as some have alleged.)

Balancing social consciousness and capitalism is tricky.

As former commissioner David Stern told Sports Illustrated in 2006: "Believe me, the China situation bothers me. ... But at the end of the day, I have a responsibility to my owners to make money. I can never forget that, no matter what my personal feelings might be."

Listen, this league is full of contradictions. Players preach fitness to kids but endorse fast food and sugar-filled sports drinks. They promote "NBA Green Week" to promote environmentalism and then drive gas-guzzling SUVs home from electricity-gorging arenas.

And we're all guilty when it comes to tacitly supporting China.

Starbucks is in China. So are Nike, McDonald's, Apple and dozens of your other favorite brands. So before lecturing NBA players, you might want to dump your latte, smash your phone and burn your high-tops. 

Nor is the NBA alone in bending its values to preserve its China ties.

Apple recently blocked an app that helped Hong Kong protesters track police. Google deleted a protest role-playing game. Last year, The Gap apologized for selling a T-shirt depicting a map of China that excluded disputed regions such as Taiwan. Mercedes-Benz apologized for quoting the Dalai Lama in an Instagram post. In 2016, Marvel (owned by Disney) scrubbed a Tibetan monk character from its Doctor Strange movie to avoid offending Beijing.

Like the NBA, McDonald's is just one of a large number of American companies doing business in China.
Like the NBA, McDonald's is just one of a large number of American companies doing business in China.JOHANNES EISELE/Getty Images

Yet Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who slammed the NBA and invoked Orwell, has spared these corporations his hyperbolic wrath. Trump, who wields considerably more political and economic power than James Harden, has used none of that influence in China. Instead, Trump promised Chinese president Xi Jinping he would remain quiet on the Hong Kong protests while negotiating a trade deal, according to CNN.

The MAGA-bots who gleefully bash the NBA for its deference to China are unbothered when Trump gushingly praises Xi as a "great leader" and a "good man," as he did in an Aug. 14 tweet.

To be clear, there are sincere people with sincere concerns about the NBA's relationship with China. But so much of this backlash has come from disingenuous political opportunists.

If you're truly concerned about China, call your senator or member of Congress. Vote for better people. Donate to Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

But if you expect a multibillion-dollar global enterpriseeven a relatively principled oneto lead the charge in reforming authoritarian governments, potentially at the expense of its profits, well, that's on you.


Howard Beck, a senior writer for Bleacher Report, has been covering the NBA full time since 1997, including seven years on the Lakers beat for the Los Angeles Daily News and nine years as a staff writer for the New York Times. His coverage was honored by APSE in 2016 and 2017, and by the Professional Basketball Writers Association in 2018.

Beck also hosts the podcast The Full 48, available on iTunes.

Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.