Editor’s Corner: Money Talks: The NBA & China

by The Cowl Editor on October 31, 2019

Professional Sports

By Cam Smith ’21

Sports Assistant Editor

For months, pro-democracy protesters have filled the streets of Hong Kong, a former British colony that was handed back to the Chinese in 1997. Although taking place on the opposite side of the globe, the effects of the protests are being felt on the American world of basketball.  

To understand the unrest, one must understand that since 1997, China and Hong Kong have operated under a “one country, two systems” policy. The policy grants the citizens of Hong Kong far greater access to rights, including the right to free speech and free assembly, than those living on the Communist party-controlled mainland.

The catalyst for the protests was a bill that would make it easy for Beijing officials, including President Xi Jinping, to accuse Hong Kong citizens of fallacious crimes, and then process them through courts controlled by the Communist Party. Although the bill was recently withdrawn by the Hong Kong legislature, the protests have continued as they have evolved into a broader fight against the increasing encroachment of Beijing into everyday life.

It is in this context that on Oct. 4, the general manager of the Houston Rockets, Daryl Morey, tweeted out his support for the protesters, posting an image that read, “fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong.” This simple gesture of support created countless consequences.

Subsequently forced to apologize for his tweet, Morey was denounced by the Chinese consulate in Houston and was even on the hotseat as the Rockets reportedly considered firing him in an effort to appease the Chinese. His own star player, James Harden, took it upon himself to apologize for Morey, saying, “We apologize… we love China. We love playing there.”

Fellow NBA star, Lebron James, whose team was in China at the time for a pair of preseason games, also weighed in, saying that, “So many people could have been harmed [by the tweet], not only financially, but physically, emotionally, spiritually… Even though yes, we do have freedom of speech, there can be a lot of negative that comes with it.”

Since then, Chinese broadcasters have ignored key games in the opening week of NBA action, including the Rockets opener against the Milwaukee Bucks. Chinese sponsors for the NBA have also been pulled, and those games that did make it to television in China were devoid of audio for fear of mentioning the controversy.

It was only recently that the NBA forged a $1.5 billion agreement to stream games online with Chinese tech giant Tencent Holdings. Prior to the deal, what the league labels as “NBA China,” already held an estimated value of $4 billion to the league. Unquestionably, China represents an enormous market for basketball itself.

However, this does not excuse the NBA from turning its back on a people fighting for freedom. The squashing of support for Hong Kong by the league, along with other American corporations including Apple and Blizzard Entertainment, is deeply disturbing. Furthermore, it is a complete betrayal of the American values that we hold dear as a country, values that have allowed the NBA and its players to thrive. The expansion of capitalism must not result in the sacrifice of democracy.