Barber: China flap is challenging NBA's reputation

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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.”

But this is where things have gotten really scary for the NBA. Because China is not a U.S. corporation or a European Union trading partner. It’s an authoritarian state with centralized command — which is pretty much, you know, what the Hong Kong protests are all about — and it doesn’t sound particularly interested in meeting Silver in the middle on this one.

China Central Television, the predominant state TV network, responded with a statement of its own. As translated by CNBC, it read, in part: “We are strongly dissatisfied and we oppose Silver’s claim to support Morey’s right of free expression. We believe that any speech that challenges national sovereignty and social stability is not within the scope of freedom of speech.”

It was an absolutely chilling message, one that simultaneously points to the darkest depths of Chinese politics and demonstrates why this is going to be such an uphill battle for the NBA.

And then the Beijing government really started rattling the sabers. CCTV and Tencent Holdings, an Internet company, had already declared they would no longer show Rockets games on TV or via online streaming. Tuesday, China canceled such broadcasts of all NBA preseason games. CCTV further stated it would “immediately investigate all cooperation and exchanges involving the NBA.”

Under pressure from the government, Chinese businesses ceased sales of NBA merchandise. Anta, the Chinese shoemaker endorsed by the Warriors’ Klay Thompson, said it was suspending NBA contract negotiations. The state-licensed online broker stopped selling tickets to Thursday’s Lakers-Nets game in Shanghai. That game, and another between the same teams in Shenzhen on Saturday, are now in jeopardy. Et cetera.

The country that is playing a cagey long game on a sweeping tariff war with the U.S. is threatening to choose the nuclear option, so to speak, on a Daryl Morey tweet.

What a bind for the NBA. Modern American sports leagues are coping with declining attendance and splintered TV ratings. One answer is to expand the overseas markets. For the NBA, there is no prize bigger than China, an economic powerhouse and a nation of close to 1.4 billion people, many of whom love basketball.

I’m not utterly naïve. I know that commerce tends to drive opinion in this world. I understand that it’s generally a bad idea to go around badmouthing the corporate partners. But where does the business relationship end? Wouldn’t it be nice to think that every brand, whether it’s Clorox or Trident gum or the NBA, has a limit to what it will condone?

I also don’t presume to know more than a rudimentary history of Hong Kong’s relationship with China. But I know an authentic protest movement when I see one. Thousands of people have taken to the streets of Hong Kong, risking their lives, to fight against the possibility of being extradited to the control of a totalitarian regime — to a country that says things like, “We believe that any speech that challenges national sovereignty and social stability is not within the scope of freedom of speech.”

Daryl Morey isn’t the only American on the receiving end of China’s ire these days. Authorities there recently scrubbed the cartoon series “South Park” from the Chinese internet after an episode that satirized the self-censorship Hollywood had gladly adopted to distribute movies in China. Monday, the show’s creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, issued a mock apology.

“Like the N.B.A., we welcome the Chinese censors into our homes and into our hearts,” they said. “We too love money more than freedom and democracy.”

Adam Silver must prove those sentences are parody, or at least exaggeration, as the pressure from China mounts. And man, it sure would be nice for a LeBron or a Steve Kerr to step forward and echo Morey’s support for peaceful human-rights protests. This isn’t the time to stick to sports.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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