Houston We Have a Problem - Politics and the NBA

Although the 2019-2020 National Basketball Association (NBA) season began merely days ago, the NBA and the Houston Rockets have already been circling in controversy.

Although the 2019-2020 National Basketball Association (NBA) season began merely days ago, the NBA and the Houston Rockets have already been circling in controversy. But in place of last year’s James Harden and Chris Paul arguments, there is a political controversy surrounding the Houston Rockets’ General Manager, Daryl Morey, and the Chinese Government.

On October 5, Daryl Morey stated in a since-deleted tweet, “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.” Though many NBA fans would not have thought twice about this comment, his support of the ongoing Hong Kong protests offended many Chinese officials and fans alike, igniting an international frenzy.

This single tweet had immense financial ramifications for the NBA, as the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) cut all cooperation with the Houston Rockets; many Chinese sports channels have stopped broadcasting Houston Rockets’ games; numerous players have lost lucrative endorsement deals with Chinese companies; many retailers in China have shelved NBA merchandise.

After the initial incident, the NBA stated that it “regrett[ed that] Morey deeply offended many of [its] friends and fans in China.” But after many American politicians and people criticized the NBA, NBA commissioner Adam Silver clarified his statement: “I recognize our initial statement left people angered, confused, or unclear on who we are or what the NBA stands for. Let me be more clear...The long-held values of the NBA are to support freedom of expression...what I also try to suggest is that there are consequences from that exercise of [Morey’s] freedom of speech.”

The NBA is walking a fine line between appealing to the Chinese government and mass market it seeks to enter while also pleasing its native fan base in America. Its stance and public statements have been quite vague, as the association is attempting to uphold values like freedom of speech while simultaneously minimizing the economic fallout.

On one hand, the NBA cannot give up its expansion into China. Efforts to expand the NBA into China had started as early as 1987, where the NBA began giving away free recorded broadcasts of games to CCTV News. Popular Chinese players like Yao Ming in the 2000s furthered the NBA’s appeal to the Chinese market, and according to ESPN, “the NBA's presence in China is worth $5 billion to the league.” As a result, it’s understandably difficult for the NBA to sever its ties with China.

However, the NBA should be clear on siding with Daryl Morey, as the association must value its principles over its financial standings. Freedom of speech is a fundamental American value that the NBA should not think twice about. Regardless of how controversial Morey’s stance is, it is well within his right to voice his opinion. America is not only the birthplace of the NBA, but Americans have also been loyal to the league for over half a century. Without the foundation of American followers, the expansion of not only the NBA but also basketball as a sport would be difficult or nearly impossible. Therefore, the NBA should support the values of its core American consumers and fully condone Daryl Morey’s free speech, regardless of the political and economic consequences.

Furthermore, the NBA’s initial ambiguity was inconsistent with its previous stances on social justice. The NBA is well known as a progressive corporation: its players have worn politically-charged shirts in warm-up lines to support the Black Lives Matter cause; it has relocated the All-Star game over trans-discriminatory laws, and it participates in LGBTQ+ parades. Adam Silver states that “[his] job is to protect NBA players’ free speech”, meaning that players and executives can speak out on political issues without fear of discipline from the league. Being a league that has established itself as a haven for free speech among athletes, the NBA must uphold those principles at all times. The NBA should not be able to censor or rebuke free speech upon their discretion—it should not have the power to appraise the monetary value of free speech as that threatens the very integrity of the right to expression. Though the NBA’s stances on social justice were emphatic and loud, it now seems timid and tentative because billions of dollars in revenue are at stake.

It is understandable for the NBA to be unsure of what to do when there is overwhelming pressure from both the Chinese government and American fanbase, as well as conflicting economic and political incentives. However, the NBA should make the tough decision to decisively stand with Daryl Morey and his free speech in order to appeal to American values and stay principled in its actions given the precedent they have set with prior political issues.

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