The NBA’s behavior toward the Chinese communists is nothing sort of despicable.
In its weekly "Gigs and Garlands" editorial, the News Herald's sister paper, The Ledger of Lakeland, criticized President Donald Trump for tweeting praise to the communist government of China for its 70th anniversary in power — absolute, dictatorial, murderous power, we would add.
The president, who too frequently shoots from the lip or the thumbs, with no thoughtful mediation about his words’ effect, was obviously misguided. Essentially, the tweet, given Trump’s overconfident belief he can woo Chinese President Xi Jinping or any other international strongman, was Trump being Trump.
But while Trump has publicly flattered Xi, the president also has waged a trade war against Beijing more vicious than anything contemplated by his predecessors — openly challenging the Chinese for stealing U.S. intellectual property and implementing $360 billion in tariffs on China, while vowing to add another $160 billion more in December, even as China’s retaliatory tariffs hurt Trump’s most loyal voters in the middle of the country.
The National Basketball Association, on the other hand, has no such excuse. Thus, its lapdog behavior toward the Chinese communists is nothing sort of despicable.
Over the past four months in Hong Kong, a vigorous protest of a controversial criminal law has morphed into a pro-democracy movement critical of the central Chinese government’s encroachment on Hong Kong’s autonomy, as guaranteed under the 1997 agreement that turned the island back over to China.
Last weekend, Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey tweeted in favor of the demonstrators: "Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong." Morey soon found himself on an island.
Chinese officials in Houston, the Chinese Basketball Association, the NBA and Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta all publicly rebuked Morey.
Morey’s tweet also prompted Chinese broadcast, banking and clothing companies to suspend ties with his team, and placed the NBA as a whole in a precarious position. The league has billions of dollars at stake in growing its presence in China, which is now an estimated 10% of its fan base. Morey quickly deleted the tweet and apologized, hoping to defuse the situation.
But the league’s reaction has gotten worse as the week wore on. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver tried to appease both sides, without success. At one point, Silver said the league would live with the "consequences" of free speech. "The NBA will not put itself in a position of regulating what players, employees and team owners say or will not say," he said. After that all of the NBA’s Chinese business partners severed ties to the league. On Friday the league announced that no one from two teams playing an exhibition game in China would be available for media interviews. So much for not regulating what players say.
The NBA has been among the most woke of entertainment providers, encouraging support for Black Lives Matter, moving its all-star game from North Carolina to protest a law that forced transgender people to use the bathroom of their birth sex, saying little as players and coaches routinely denounced Trump and even forbidding the word "owner" for the teams’, well, owners.
Last year, when Trump was Twitter-feuding with NBA superstars LeBron James and Steph Curry, Silver told ESPN, "Politics have always been part of players’ lives." "These are multidimensional people," he added. "They should talk about issues that are important to them. It doesn’t mean everybody has to agree on those issues, but that’s America. This is a platform for free speech."
While Silver has supposedly defended free speech, the league has moved to crush that in a way that surely makes its Chinese benefactors smile. Outspoken players and coaches who had no problem bashing Trump are strangely silent or are pleading ignorance in commenting on Hong Kong.
The problem here is bigger than the NBA, of course. We, as a nation, and major U.S. corporations have gotten so indebted to China as a market that we now almost instinctively avoid alienating the autocrats. As for the NBA, we see now that when China says "Shut up and dribble," to borrow from Fox News host Laura Ingraham, the NBA won’t cry foul.
A longer version of this editorial first appeared in the Ledger, a News Herald sister paper with GateHouse Media.