China, Hong Kong, and Basketball: How One Tweet Started a Firestorm in the NBA

by Nicholas Kishaba

Staff Writer

In March, demonstrations began in the streets of Hong Kong, largely in protest against a bill which would essentially allow the Chinese government to extradite fugitives from regions they do not currently control, such as Taiwan, Macau, and Hong Kong. Since then, Hong Kong City Leader Carrie Lam has agreed to withdraw the bill, however, as protests have increased in both frequency and violence, protesters’ demands have consolidated into a call for democracy. Among other demands such as amnesty for arrested protesters, and an inquiry into police brutality, there are also demands for the resignation for Lam, who is believed by the protesters to be a pawn for Beijing.

The constant tensions between protesters and the Chinese government, as well as the global focus they have received, have forced many American businesses to pick a side. Choose Hong Kong, and accept the fiscal repercussions of going against the Chinese government, or choose China, and suffer the social backlash in the United States of aligning with a country that has often “undermined people’s rights to free speech and political participation.” One organization has taken center stage in the Hong Kong dilemma: the National Basketball Association. 

Demonstrators in Hong Kong protest the new anti-mask law, despite heavy rains.

The NBA, which is the most notable basketball league in the United States, has grown to be one of the most popular and profitable sports leagues in the United States, but much of this growth was done on the back of the Chinese television market. In June 2019, the NBA announced a five-year extension of the partnership with the league’s current partner in China, Tencent,  worth an estimated 1.5 billion dollars. According to the NBA, roughly 640 million people watched some form of NBA programming during the 2018 season. In essence, basketball has become the biggest sport in China, and the NBA is China’s most popular basketball league. For the NBA, its stake in the Chinese market is notable, and the downfall of losing access to it would be steep. Yet on October 4th, the general manager of the NBA’s Houston Rockets, Daryl Morey, tweeted an image stating “Fight for Freedom, Stand With Hong Kong.” The Chinese consulate in Houston reacted swiftly, quickly denouncing him. However, more surprise was yet to come as Morey was forced to tweet an apology while the NBA declared his statement as regrettable. While many understand the NBA’s fiscal relationship with China, distancing themselves from Morey and his statements appeared to many as tolerance for the Chinese government, if not outright support. 

For nearly 60 years, the NBA has been characterized as a league of free speech, protests, and social activism. From Bill Russell becoming the black coach in American Sports in 1966, to players and coaches openly criticizing Donald Trump’s policies, the NBA has been identified as arguably the most progressive sports league in the U.S. But the conflict between China and Hong Kong has shown a lack of confidence in the players, owners, and league towards activism. The league which has never punished someone for expressing their views is speculated to have pressured Daryl Morey to publicly apologize. Even LeBron James, a player who in the past wore “I Can’t Breathe” shirts, opened a school for underserved children in Ohio, and called Donald Trump a “bum,” criticized Morey for his tweet, arguing that he wasn’t properly educated on the situation. 

While it is likely that the NBA leadership would have preferred to remain neutral in the conflict, James, as arguably the most notable basketball figure of the 21st century, has chosen the side of the NBA, irrespective of the views held by others in the organization. It doesn’t matter that Kyrie Irving, a player for the Brooklyn Nets, gave his support to Hong Kong in a post-game interview, nor is it of any consequence that former player Shaquille O’Neal had outrightly declared that Daryl Morey was right. The public image of the NBA has suffered in both of its biggest markets. Some players have quickly sided with Hong Kong, while others  are attempting to maintain business ties with the Chinese market. The rest are caught in the crossfire, avoiding choosing sides, and citing a lack of knowledge on the situation to provide comments. The most recent official comment by the NBA, made by the commissioner of the NBA, Adam Silver, is that the NBA would support freedom of expression. But for many fans in both the United States and Hong Kong, this public expression of support is just not enough. Bipartisan pressure from Congress is pushing the NBA to change its stance on Hong Kong, as senators and congressmen are pressuring U.S. companies to confront China. However, the threat of action from the Chinese government looms large as well. The NBA has already faced consequences, as Tencent, the NBA’s streaming partner, has cut off Houston Rockets’ games from their platform. Further statements on Hong Kong would likely see more stringent action being taken against the NBA. Seeking to satisfy fans in the United States in this controversy would undoubtedly hurt their relationship with the Chinese government and the market under their control. Unfortunately for the NBA, it’s nearly impossible to satisfy all sides of the equation, and the statements which have been made have already hurt its image, reputation, and revenue.

Photos courtesy of:

Etan Liam

Piotr Drabik

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