How much of its integrity – and legacy – is the National Basketball Association willing to sacrifice for the sake of business? The answer, apparently, is: lots.
Over the weekend, the Houston Rockets barreled into an international imbroglio when the team’s general manager, Daryl Morey, posted a message on Twitter that read, “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong,” referring to escalating protests that, over the past few months, have put the former British colony on a collision course with the Chinese government.
The backlash was swift. Several Chinese businesses and the Chinese Basketball Association announced that they’re suspending cooperation with the Rockets. NBA preseason games won’t be broadcast or streamed in China after CCTV’s sports channel announced Tuesday it was halting those broadcasts and Tencent, the NBA’s exclusive digital partner in China, also said it would suspend live streaming for the preseason games.
More troubling, though, has been the tenor of the responses from some of the NBA’s top brass and most fêted players.
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“@dmorey does NOT speak for the @HoustonRockets. Our presence in Tokyo is all about the promotion of the @NBA internationally and we are NOT a political organization,” Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta tweeted on Friday.
“We recognize that the views expressed by Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey have deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China, which is regrettable,” league spokesman Mike Bass said in a statement on Sunday. (Notably, he also nodded to the league’s support of players who “(share) their views on matters important to them.”)
“We apologize. We love China. We love playing there,” Rockets star James Harden said on Monday. “They show us the most important love, so we appreciate them as a fan base.”
What’s remarkable about these statements, especially those from Harden, is how they’re decidedly at odds with the ethos of the NBA. As The New York Times culture reporter Sopan Deb tweeted on Sunday, “The NBA has long branded itself as the ‘League That Encourages Political Activism.’ And now, the league is silent on the attacks on Morey.”
Indeed, the NBA’s general jumpiness around upsetting its relationship with China – veiled by its gormless insistence that it’s an apolitical organization – is a betrayal of its own history of activism, which has been pioneered significantly by the league’s black players.
To see how, rewind some half a century. In the 1960s and ‘70s, the basketball great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who had a famed professional career first with the Milwaukee Bucks and then with the Los Angeles Lakers, was one of the most visible and socially conscious athletes in the sporting world, often taking America to task on issues of racial inequality (the country, of course, didn’t like that too much).
“The poor people of Harlem felt that it was better to get hit with a nightstick than to keep on taking the white man’s insults forever. Right then and there I knew who I was and who I had to be. I was going to be black rage personified, black power in the flesh,” Abdul-Jabbar recalled to Sports Illustrated in 1980, of the influence the 1964 Harlem race riots had on him.
As the sports journalist Howard Bryant argues in his 2018 book, “The Heritage: Black Athletes, a Divided America, and the Politics of Patriotism,” Abdul-Jabbar was part of a much broader generation of black athlete-activists – including the 12-time NBA All-Star Bill Russell – who revealed how, at least for some players, the game has always had a political dimension.
But you don’t have to go back even that far to see how much the recent comments being batted around the NBA smother and squelch history. LeBron James, for one, is a present-day avatar of the athlete-activist. Though he has yet to enter into the current controversy, James has a record of advocating for greater awareness of a variety of political and social-justice issues: police violence, access to education, compensation for student athletes (predictably, this has made him a frequent target of the American right).
All of which is to say that the NBA has more at stake than its Chinese fortune. While the unfolding events are somewhat different in scope than the aforementioned examples, they all speak to the league’s broader reputation, one that its black players, in particular, have helped to build and sustain over the decades. The question now is: What governs the NBA – its hard-won values or the financial pressure of an autocratic regime?