By Zach Naidu
This China thing isn’t going away, Adam Silver — it’s time to do something about it.
Over the past decade, the NBA has championed itself as the moral standard in professional sports. While FIFA is routinely riddled with corruption and the NFL consistently bungles social issues like anthem protests and personal conduct violations, the NBA has racked up brownie points with its apt handling of player empowerment and social justice issues. The most notable PR success occurred when Commissioner Adam Silver banned former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling from the league for life in 2014, forcing him to sell the team after racist secret audio recordings were released to the public. That makes what has transpired over the past three weeks with the Daryl Morey Twitter saga all the more perplexing.
For background, on Oct. 4, Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey — a consensus top five executive in the league — tweeted “Fight for Freedom, Stand with Hong Kong.” To the ire of the Chinese government, Morey publicly sided with pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. This column isn’t intended to recap all of the backstory and reaction, as Sporting News provided adequate information in its explanation of the controversy last week. Rather, I want to reflect on the NBA’s aforementioned label as the sports world’s “moral standard” and highlight the actions of two key figures: Adam Silver and LeBron James.
While the league did not oblige to China’s request to fire Morey, Silver initially labeled the tweet as “regrettable,” or so it seemed. Amid massive backlash, Silver later qualified his statement, referring to China’s reaction as regrettable rather than the tweet itself. If Silver had initially meant to side with Morey — a debatable possibility — then it was a rare PR blunder and miscommunication. In retaliation, China suspended much of its business with the NBA and has continued to do so. The financial toll the league continues to incur balloons by the day. However, I’m more concerned about the actions of LeBron James, the social justice athlete-pioneer of his generation. Rather than support Darryl Morey, LeBron softly criticized the Rockets executive, saying he was “misinformed.” This is where I take issue with James, as he has repeatedly championed the rights of athletes and emphatically spoken out about political and social issues that expand beyond the basketball court. Yet when it came to addressing this situation involving democracy, LeBron did not have a strong enough opinion other than criticizing the man who spoke out about it.
These initial reactions by Silver and James exemplify the NBA is a business — a business that hasn’t gone out of its way to act morally, rather it has done so because taking the moral stance aligns with its economic interest. The NFL continues to blackball Colin Kaepernick and allow long leashes for domestic violence abusers. It’s not something I personally agree with, but I also understand the league’s mission to keep the best talent on the field in order maintain viewership. LeBron James does not get a pass for prioritizing the Chinese promotion of his Space Jam 2 film over civil justice. Neither should the NBA until it does something that sends a firm message it truly values the “right thing” above all else.
I suggest the NBA sanction China by pulling all of its content and merchandise from the country. Right now, China is in control of the situation through calling for Morey’s firing and withholding broadcasts of NBA games, while NBA fans have turned to critics due to the league’s kowtowing of China. Is this extreme? Yes, absolutely. Is it the clearest solution to the league rectifying its image among its domestic fans? Also, yes. In order to draw a firm line in the sand, Silver must do what he did with Donald Sterling — something bold that sends a clear message to NBA fans that the league values its moral standard above all else, even when the bottom line suffers. The league currently has a $1.5 billion licensing contract with Chinese tech giant Tencent. The details of the contract are unknown, but one would suspect that if China has the authority to blackout NBA games due to the tweet of a general manager, the league is well within its right to retaliate similarly.
The league would exacerbate its financial hemorrhaging if it were to pull its licensing deal with China. But it would also gain unanimous support and approval from all of its fans and truly be able to claim itself as the moral authority in the sports sphere. It’s a radical thought, and one not likely to come to fruition, but it would get the job done.
Adam Silver has done a phenomenal job throughout his tenure balancing the interests of both sides of a dispute. Due to the infamous 2016 “Bathroom Bill” in North Carolina, Silver delayed the city of Charlotte’s hosting of All-Star Weekend two years until part of the law was repealed. Just like with Donald Sterling, however, Silver’s impetus for action aligned with the league’s economic incentive, as both of these measures met the approval of the league’s growing, young, diverse fanbase. Prioritizing the league’s bottom line over a fight for democracy, however, clearly presents a different case, as demonstrated by fan protests transpiring during the pre-season and opening night. Right now, the league is upsetting its fanbase and losing money. Time will tell if it can continue to walk this line of neutrality, but right now, the situation seems bleak.
As for LeBron James, he is a genuinely good person who co-founded a school and has made countless charitable donations to those in need. However, I also believe he is learning that he can’t selectively side with the moral party in today’s political climate — you’re either all in, or all out. The NBA is learning that the hard way as well and will continue to suffer until it takes a firm stand.
Contact Zach Naidu at znaidu ‘at’ stanford.edu.