The NBA says it won’t compromise on its values, even as the league makes it clear it has none.
As you’ve no doubt heard, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted his support for the protesters in Hong Kong. Almost instantly, the Chinese government and Chinese businesses erupted in outrage. The NBA, the Rockets, Morey, and various players rushed to apologize or express regret for offending millions of Chinese basketball fans. The NBA’s statement, particularly the Chinese version, was loathsome in its obsequious groveling.
A few days later, NBA commissioner Adam Silver held a press conference in Tokyo, hoping to put out the firestorm. Responding to China’s cancellation of some NBA exhibition games in protest, Silver seemed like he was standing his ground.
“I think it’s unfortunate,” Silver said of the canceled games. “But if that’s the consequences of us adhering to our values, we still feel it’s critically important we adhere to those values. . . . We are not apologizing for Daryl exercising his freedom of expression.”
Silver did express regret, however, that so many in China, including “millions and millions of our fans” were “upset.” He said that while he wasn’t endorsing what Morey tweeted, he would defend Morey’s right to tweet it.
Of course, the tweet remains deleted.
Days later, fans carrying pro–Hong Kong signs were ejected from an NBA exhibition game in Philadelphia. At a Washington Wizards game, pro–Hong Kong signs were confiscated by security. American reporters have been told they couldn’t ask players about the China controversy. A CNN reporter was instructed: “Basketball questions only” when she tried to talk to two Rockets players. The league later apologized, which it seems to be getting good at.
In other words, the NBA is eager to seem as if it’s in favor of free expression while curtailing expression as much as possible. The strategy has had some success. A CNN headline declared, “NBA chief Adam Silver says profit can’t come before the league’s principles,” and was accurate to the extent that it’s sort of what Silver said. It’s not clear it’s what he believes.
The mere fact that this controversy has become about free expression is a victory for the NBA. Saying, in effect, “I disagree with what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it,” has always been a popular way for cowards to seem brave.
The problem is that free expression is just one of the values the NBA claims to stand for. In Silver’s statement, he waxed poetic about the principle the league is famous for marketing to the world: diversity. “One of the enduring strengths of the NBA is our diversity — of views, backgrounds, ethnicities, genders and religions,” the statement read.
That’s great. But the Chinese government has herded more than a million Muslim Uyghurs into “re-education camps” while paving over their cemeteries and tearing down their mosques. The same league that pulled its all-star game out of Charlotte, N.C., over a contentious transgender bathroom law has no problem partnering with a country that fights diversity at the point of a gun.
As first reported in Slate, the NBA even has a training facility in Urumqi, the capital of Xianjing, the epicenter of China’s cultural genocide project.
China’s lack of commitment to diversity and equality doesn’t end there. The country essentially practices Jim Crow with Chinese characteristics, as Chairman Mao might have said. If you aren’t ethnic Han, or if you don’t speak Mandarin, you’re a second-class citizen with little to no access to certain jobs and universities.
What Silver doesn’t understand — or deliberately ignores — is that free expression isn’t a standalone value. It’s part of a larger whole, which includes democracy, the rule of law, and the full suite of human rights. China opposes the whole package. Or, to be more accurate, the Chinese government does. Which is why it’s against freedom in Hong Kong.
It’s clever for Silver to talk about not wanting to offend “millions and millions” of Chinese fans. That plays well to the ears of woke Americans who think offending people tests the limits of free speech. But Twitter is blocked in China, which means none of those fans saw the tweet in the first place.
What they did see was the orchestrated propaganda campaign from the Chinese government and its rich clients — a group that includes the NBA.