What more do people want from National Basketball Association commissioner Adam Silver?
It seems nearly everyone – from the far right of the political spectrum to the far left – is upset with the NBA’s response to China’s hissy fit over Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey’s support of Hong Kong protesters.
Just days before a series of NBA exhibition games in Asia (played in Japan, India and China), Morey tweeted, “Fight for freedom, Stand with Hong Kong.”
Well, China went nuts when they saw that. They hate free speech. Chinese officials said the two NBA preseason games in China would no longer be televised on state-run CCTV. Numerous Chinese companies suspended business dealings with the NBA. The Chinese Basketball Association (headed by Yao Ming, the former star centre for the Rockets) suspended its partnership with Houston. Tencent, the NBA’s digital partner, announced it was suspending media coverage of the Rockets. NBA logos were covered up in the arenas hosting the exhibition games. Etc.
As the NBA’s CEO, Silver was suddenly thrust into a very tough situation. His league has spent millions cultivating the Chinese market. Thanks largely to the NBA, China is a basketball-mad country (300 million Chinese play basketball and NBA games are hugely popular across all media platforms). The NBA’s presence in China is reportedly worth roughly $4 billion to the league.
Following Morey’s tweet, CCTV released a statement that said in part, “Thirty years of hard work was destroyed,” and that Silver and the NBA should “see their mistakes and mend their ways by retracting their wrong remarks and sincerely apologizing to the Chinese fans.”
But Silver did nothing of the sort. He didn’t try to mollify Chinese officials, like numerous other American corporate CEOs have done over the years when they’ve upset the Chinese government. Neither he nor the Rockets ownership pushed Morey to step down from his position for expressing his views.
“The long-held values of the NBA are to support freedom of expression and Daryl Morey enjoyed that right as one of our employees,” said Silver. “I also understand that there are consequences from that exercise of his freedom of speech. We will have to live with those consequences.”
Those consequences include the fact that the NBA has already lost millions of dollars in this spat and could eventually lose billions.
“There is no doubt, the economic impact is already clear,” said Silver. Nevertheless, he doubled down on the importance of adhering to the league’s values.
“It is inevitable that people around the world – including from America and China – will have different viewpoints over different issues,” added Silver. “It is not the role of the NBA to adjudicate those differences. However, the NBA will not put itself in a position of regulating what players, employees, and team owners say or will not say on these issues. We simply could not operate that way.”
When directly asked if the personal freedoms he spoke of extended to the 60 staff members in the NBA’s Hong Kong regional office, he quickly responded, “We will protect our employees’ freedom of speech.” That’s a far different response than National Football League commissioner Roger Goodell provided after the NFL received heavy criticism for Colin Kaepernick’s peaceful social justice statement during the playing of the national anthem.
Silver certainly doesn’t want to lose millions of dollars, maybe billions, for his league and the owners who pay his salary. But he knows that as a league viewed as the most progressive in American sports – and deservedly so, when you examine the league’s social justice and civil rights record – he couldn’t simply cave to China’s anger by apologizing to Chinese government, business and basketball leaders.
In short, Silver has said and done the right thing in a very sticky situation … to this point. Emphasis on “to this point.” If Morey ends up out of a job and/or the league eventually genuflects and kisses China’s butt with an apology (as many American companies have done previously), then I will feel much different about Silver and the NBA than I do right now and a different-themed column will be in the offing.
Sure Silver could’ve followed Morey’s lead and come out strongly in support of the Hong Kong protesters. He could’ve gone on a long rant about decades of Chinese human rights abuses. But it’s not reasonable to expect him to do that.
Why should the NBA and its CEO have to take the lead in American relations with China when the heads of thousands of American companies doing business in China, and American politicians from both parties, have basically said nothing and done nothing regarding human rights issues in China through the years?
Silver is the CEO of a professional basketball league, not the secretary of state.
So far, Silver has stood on principle while standing up to the Chinese when it comes to protecting the cherished American value of freedom of expression.
And by doing so, he’s shown once again why he’s the best commissioner in American sports.
Ken Reed is sports policy director for League of Fans (leagueoffans.org), a sports reform project. He is the author of The Sports Reformers, Ego vs. Soul in Sports, and How We Can Save Sports.
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