Sports don’t exist in a vacuum, as much as we would like them to. Every so often, something happens to remind us that these teams, players and leagues — which for many of us shape part of our own identities — are businesses, and will protect their bottom line over almost anything else. Arguably, the most famous instance in recent memory was the Colin Kaepernick-led national anthem kneeling protest, which took the NFL years to distance itself from in the wake of political outcry and anger from fans and loss of revenue.
The NBA has branded itself as the league of “wokeness,” benefiting from its platform of social advocacy. This differentiates it from other American sports leagues, who have a poor history on social issues (i.e. the NFL) or whose platform is having no stance on anything whatsoever. When NBA Commissioner Adam Silver banned former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling for life because of his obscenely racist remarks about black people, the NBA made a no-brainer PR move that made their fans happy to support them. Taking a stand against racism is easy, especially when it’ll help you make more money in the future.
Ten days ago, Daryl Morey, general manager of the Houston Rockets, tweeted out a message reading “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.” The NBA found itself between a rock and a hard place. Advocating for Hong Kong is instantaneously a death sentence for a business that is building a multibillion-dollar empire across the Pacific. There were more Chinese people who watched the NBA last year than the population of the entire United States.
Silver has since then stood firm on the NBA’s policy regarding freedom of speech: “The NBA will not put itself in a position of regulating what players, employees and team owners say or will not say on these issues.” As a response, China Central Television, a state-sponsored channel in China, stated: “We believe that no comments challenging national sovereignty and social stability fall within the scope of freedom of expression.” While Silver is stating American ideals, he is not doing what many NBA fans and Hong Kong supporters had hoped for, which was something more drastic. However, should we expect that much from a sports league?
It feels good to read about instances like LeBron James being able to call the president a “bum” and players taking offense at being told to “shut up and dribble.” Allowing players to speak their mind is an attractive business strategy, and for a league that has perhaps the most diverse viewer base, it makes sense. On this topic, however, the players are being told to stay silent, play their preseason games in China and let the world forget this ever happened. The NBA has and will undoubtedly face financial repercussions for not firing Morey outright and for not completely capitulating to the will of the Chinese government, but they’re doing damage control as best as they can. Parroting the stance of “freedom of speech” is the easiest, most noncommittal way of appeasing American consumers whenever something deemed dangerous is said by an employee of a company.
While we wish that a large corporation with considerable public visibility would fight our ideological battles for us against an authoritarian China, it’s a sobering reality that they can’t. In this scenario, the NBA has so much to lose and the average basketball fan has very little to gain. One tweet has sparked a likely short-lived but important conversation about what is ethical, good for business and what happens when those two come into conflict. And while we look to sports for an escape from the complexity of the outside world, we shouldn’t turn a blind eye to our values.