Barber: China flap is challenging NBA's reputation
The NBA has exposed itself this week, and we shouldn’t be one bit surprised.
It has been America’s “woke” league for a while. Only in the NBA would Adam Silver, not even three months into his job as commissioner, be able to purge a bizarre racist like Donald Sterling from the ownership ranks. Only in the NBA could Mavericks team owner Mark Cuban boast that Colin Kaepernick’s views would be welcome if he played pro basketball. Only the NBA would postpone staging its All-Star weekend in Charlotte because North Carolina was threatening to deny transgender people the right to use the bathrooms of their choice.
With their strong anti-Trump or pro-gun-legislation statements, players like LeBron James and coaches like Steve Kerr, Gregg Popovich and Stan Van Gundy have created the impression that the NBA, in contrast to the NFL and MLB, is a league that values human rights, equality and the lives of people of color.
Now we are discovering the boundary of the NBA’s high-mindedness. The endgame has not been revealed, but it’s quite possible that boundary is drawn right around the spot where the NBA receives overseas money transfers.
The short version of the story, which you probably know, goes like this: Last Friday, Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey tweeted a brief message of support for the Hong Kong protesters. China and its state media outlets and state basketball association flew into a rage. The NBA and some of its prominent individuals bowed abjectly and asked for forgiveness. The American public pushed back. And the league has spent the past 24 hours trying to divine the precise thin line that will allow it to preserve its progressive image while continuing to make vaults full of money from an expanding foreign market.
It’s possible there is no such line, that Silver and his fellow executives will eventually have to choose between human dignity and the sound of a ringing cash register. It’s enough to keep a fella in a dark suit awake at night.
Silver and the NBA may have believed they could get this flap to blow over quickly. Instead, they enflamed the situation Monday with a tepid statement — unsigned, attributed only to “the NBA” — that didn’t exactly criticize Morey but certainly expressed no support for him. Worse, the version posted to Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, was harsher, referring to Morey’s “inappropriate speech.”
This NBA statement performed a rare trick. It managed to unite liberals who are truly concerned for the Hong Kong protesters with right-wing commentators like Laura Ingraham and politicians like Marco Rubio, who had been waiting for a reason to pounce on an organization they despise for its anti-Trump stances.
No one seemed happy with the NBA by Monday night. So Silver, deftly sticking a finger into the prevailing winds, released a new statement. This one ran 350 words and mostly expressed the bland idea that the NBA was all about friendship and respect. The message did, however, make it clear that the league “will not put itself in a position of regulating what players, employees and team owners say or will not say on these issues.”
You can imagine Silver giving the document one final read, nodding and quietly saying, “Nailed it.”