At first glance, it all seemed frivolous. Daryl Morey, General Manager of the Houston Rockets, posted a tweet (since deleted) in support of the protesters in Hong Kong. This simple act unleashed a firestorm from the Chinese government, criticizing Morey for his insensitivity to Chine culture, cancelling exhibition games scheduled in Chinese cities and threatening to take actions that will impact the huge financial empire that the NBA has built and nurtured among Chinese citizens. CCTV, Chinese state television proclaimed, “We believe that any speech that challenges national sovereignty and social stability is not within the scope of freedom of speech.”
For its part, NBA officials, players and management personnel have waffled in support of Morey’s statement. There’s a lot of money at stake and a huge Chinese audience for NBA games and paraphernalia, that the league has been nurturing for years. This lack of full-throated endorsement of Morey’s right to free expression, brought criticism from far-reaching corners of the American landscape, including rare bi-partisan outrage in Congress (though President Trump’s support for Morey has been tepid at best).
Of course, this dust-up is not occurring in a geopolitical vacuum, but in the midst of a “trade war” between the US and China, impeachment proceedings in the House of Representatives, questions about Ukraine (and China) involvement in the 2020 US elections and the recent incursion of Turkish forces into Kurdish territory in Syria.
The controversy with the NBA has drawn attention to other areas of society–especially in the tech industry–where American companies have succumbed to China’s wishes. However things are resolved in the basketball world (recent indications are that China has softened its stance on the NBA), this is not just an esoteric exercise, but an important lesson for us all for several reasons:
First, this incident demonstrates the power of social media. Morey’s call for support of the Hong Kong protesters was not an official action with any accompanying mandates, yet it caught fire among all strata of society, impacting league officials and ordinary fans alike. The comment touched a raw nerve in China, prompting a huge nationalistic response.
Second—it was a tweet, for God’s sake. There was no invasion, no occupation by a foreign power, no shift in official policy, no abusive fines or taxes. It was a tweet—one of millions that are posted on social media every day. Americans (and people throughout the world) who cherish freedom of expression need to take notice and realize how precious freedom of expression is, and examine anew the contrast between social norms in our country with those of the oft-touted Communist utopia, China.
Third, it is a real-life, modern-day parable about the seductive power of money. With financial stakes so high for the league (and the players), these events offer an opportunity for ethical principles to triumph over the lure of wealth. How will the NBA and its players respond?
Also, the NBA is not an organization that operates behind the shroud of corporate secrecy. Its work, its personnel, its very success functions in the public domain and can make a difference in the world. Professional athletes have come to recognize this. Colin Kaepernick, Lebron James, Steph Curry and others have been increasingly aware of their public platforms and willing to voice their opinions on pressing issues of the day, sometimes at great personal risk (Kaepernick has not worked as an NFL player since taking a knee during the national anthem in protest of police violence against African Americans).
What is happening on the South Asian peninsula seems more removed from the American experience than police shootings or systemic racism, but the underlying cause of freedom, justice and human dignity is also at the root of the struggle for justice in Hong Kong. The difference: the threat of losing money is more real than in other situations. It will be interesting to see if NBA athletes and league officials will stand up for freedom of expression on behalf of a threatened and marginalized people or if they will succumb to the lure of a marketplace where expansion irrespective of human rights is the order of the day.