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Money Over Morals? A Look into the NBA and Lebron James' Handling of the China Situation (part 1)

By Ian Daniels:


If you have paid any attention to the most recent recipients of the NBA Awards, there is no question the reach of the game of basketball is global. While this could have been said back when Hakeem Olajuwon was dominating the league in the 1990’s or when Yao Ming protecting the paint in the 2000’s, in recent years the game has grown into a premier international sport. With four of the five award winners being born outside of North America, there is no questioning basketball’s global influence.[1]

The NBA’s choice to hold preseason games in Japan, China, and India before the 2019-2020 season was the next logical step in the process to expand the league overseas.[2] Putting stars like Kyrie Irving, James Harden, and Anthony Davis in front of the world would do nothing but good for the basketball community and the NBA . . . right?

Unfortunately, this was not the case. An unpredictable chain of events was set into motion by a tweet sent out by the Houston Rockets’ General Manager Daryl Morey in the midst of the international preseason games abroad. Morey’s tweet led to an apologetic NBA and what sounded like a decision to choose money over morals by both the league and the league’s biggest star, Lebron James.

On October 4th, Rockets GM Daryl Morey sent out a tweet with an image reading “Fight for Freedom, Stand with Hong Kong.” The picture is one that has been used often on social media to show solidarity with the pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong. Without getting into the geopolitics of the situation in China, one would think such a showing of support for social justice would align with the moral stance the NBA has taken over the course of its history. The circumstances, however, sparked an immediate outrage by the Rockets’ owner Tilman Fertitta, the NBA, and the Chinese government.[3]

Almost immediately Fertitta quote-tweeted Morey’s post condemning his stance and claiming he did not speak for the Houston Rockets Organization, tagging ESPN to ensure the story got picked up quickly.[4] An observer of the situation could easily wonder whether this kind of reaction made the situation worse, rather than just sending a text demanding the post’s deletion. Public condemnation of your employee rather than a silent attempt to mitigate the issue did not seem like a smart course of action. This is especially true when you think about how little following Morey had on twitter prior to his Hong Kong tweet. Not many people, especially outside of Rockets fans or massive basketball fans, would have reason to follow a General Manager’s social media account.

The league’s response was almost equally as swift. Commissioner Adam Silver made sure to recognize the offense China had taken from the tweet, but he tried his hardest to avoid condemning employees for the league for taking stances on social issues.[5] Silver’s statement was used by certain media outlets as an opportunity to bash what is ad nauseam referred to as the “woke league.” (in reference to the league’s history of players, coaches, and management taking progressive stances on social issues.) While needing to maintain some level of diplomacy, it seems justified for the commissioner to take a stance that would attempt to mend relations with a such a lucrative market. Additionally, it makes sense for him to simultaneously avoid impeding the rights of his players, coaches, and staff to stand up for social causes. These rights are ones that he has openly acknowledged as important.[6] So why did this seem to cause such a stir?

From an outside perspective it seems like this situation was mishandled in a number of ways. If Tilman Fertitta had just told Morey to delete the tweet, or simply not acknowledged it, this probably would have blown over by now. Bringing even more attention to the tweet and tagging the largest sports media outlet in the country does not seem like the wisest move at the time. One could argue his reactionary response lead to the entire league needing to answer for the tweet.

Once the story gained traction, it put the league and Adam Silver in an impossibly tough spot. With China being such an integral market, the NBA could not just let something like this slide. This is especially true when you think of the painful irony of which franchise Daryl Morey works for. The Houston Rockets have the name of the most famous Chinese basketball player ever hanging in their rafters. Yao Ming played for the team from 2002-2011 and is now the chairman of the Chinese Basketball Association.[7] Not to mention the fact that the Rockets are one of the few teams in the league that wear uniforms celebrating Chinese heritage.[8] The Houston Rockets and China have a very rich history, so the commissioner had to step in to try and mend the relationship in the wake of the tweet. For the league, China is a growing market with potential almost beyond comprehension. More fans watched NBA games in China in 2017, about half of the country’s 1.4 billion people, than the United States even has.[9] The consideration to alienate this market is not one to be taken lightly. If the NBA as an entity was going to take a stand with the democratic protestors in Hong Kong, they would not have set up these preseason games in the first place. It would be unwise to begin to sever the relationship in the middle of the events going on in the country. This is not to say they never will look to stand with the protestors, but at the time of the tweet, the league almost had no choice.

With all of this in mind, Adam Silver still could not come off as if he was trying to silence the opinions of the NBA family either. As the most progressive commissioner in the major American sports, he has always welcomed the outspoken opinions of those who work under the NBA umbrella. Finding this delicate middle-ground between social justice and maintaining the bottom-line proved troublesome for the league, however. The media began to swarm, and rightfully so, pointing to the hypocrisy of the league and its players on social justice. It is hard to point to a course of action that the league could have taken that was better. There was a lot more to consider than just a choice between capital gains or good will, despite what the national media suggested. The media firestorm began to peak when one of the league’s most outspoken players, who holds possibly the largest platform in sports, was asked about the issue.

Many initially thought that Lebron’s reaction seemed like an immediate showing of subservience to a “hand-that-feeds” when he was asked about the situation in a press conference. However, when looking at the situation from a more holistic approach and analyzing the ramifications of Lebron’s reaction to the tweet, a more calculated, yet still frustrating response is revealed.

References:

[1] 2019 NBA Awards: Complete list of winners, NBA.com (June 25, 2019),

https://www.nba.com/nbaawards/2019/finalists

[2] Adam Wells, Report: NBA to Play Preseason Games in Japan, India, China Next Season, Bleacher Report (Oct. 7, 2018), https://bleacherreport.com/articles/2799486-report-nba-to-play-preseason-games-in-japan-india-china-next-season

[3] Jordan Greer, The Daryl Morey controversy, explained: How a tweet created a costly rift between the NBA and China, Sporting News (Oct. 23, 2019) https://www.sportingnews.com/us/nba/news/daryl-morey-tweet-controversy-nba-china-explained/togzszxh37fi1mpw177p9bqwi

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Ben Cohen, The 7-foot-6 Man Caught Between the NBA and China, WSJ (Oct. 10, 2019), https://www.wsj.com/articles/yao-ming-the-7-foot-6-man-caught-between-the-nba-and-china-11570727998

[8] Chris Fuchs, To Attract New Fans, NBA Turns to Lunar New Year and Bollywood, NBC News (Feb. 15, 2018), https://www.nbcnews.com/news/asian-america/attract-new-fans-nba-turns-lunar-new-year-bollywood-n848026

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