Commentary: the NBA is playing a dangerous game

The Mall of Asia Arena during the 2013 International Basketball Federation (FIBA) Asia Championship Iran-China game. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia user WayKurat/CC BY

The NBA has had a turbulent month. It finds itself stuck between two geopolitical rivals: China and the United States. It might be obvious that China’s influence is growing, but you may be surprised by the extent to which China’s influence is already right at our door. 

On Oct. 4, Houston Rockets Manager Daryl Morey tweeted “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong,” in support of the ongoing protests in Hong Kong. After a few hours, he deleted the tweet after the National Basketball Association (NBA) and the Houston Rockets immediately received substantial backlash from mainland China. The NBA has a growing presence in China partially due to them running  international games, calling them NBA Global Games, but the NBA’s primary presence in China is merchandising and broadcasting rights. 

China reacted swiftly and viscerally. The Chinese state-run broadcast network, CCTV, pulled broadcasts of NBA games, Chinese celebrities began to boycott NBA games and merchandising brands began to question or outright halt their relationship with the NBA. 

American audiences also quickly responded; multiple instances were reported at NBA games where staff allegedly confiscated signs that voiced support for the Hong Kong protesters.  James Harden and Russell Westbrook, members of the Houston Rockets, were required not to answer questions about Hong Kong in a press conference and several reporters were removed for asking questions on the topic. 

An odd group of U.S. lawmakers, including New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, signed a letter criticizing the NBA for its support of China. The letter pointed to the continued operation of an NBA training camp in Xinjiang province, where China is holding millions of Uighur Muslims in concentration camps. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver released a statement claiming the NBA will not censor its staff, but it was too little too late.

 “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,” the statement said. 

Blizzard Entertainment, a video game developer and publisher, recently became involved in a similar situation when a commentator for its Hearthstone esports league and a Hong Kong native, Ng Wai Chung, voiced support for the protesters during an official broadcast. Blizzard immediately sanctioned the commentator, garnering intense criticism from American audiences, which included calls to boycott the company’s games. 

A few days later, three American University Hearthstone esports players raised a sign that read “Free Hong Kong. Boycott Blizz.” Blizzard responded by banning the players for six months for what they describe as “knowingly breaking the rules.”

U.S. based firms are increasingly finding themselves in similar predicaments. The financial interests of the U.S. and China are increasingly at odds. 

This problem will likely not resolve itself anytime soon. The Chinese middle class has grown substantially in the last 10 years and is projected to easily overtake the American middle class in both size and market power in the coming years. This will give U.S.-based international firms an increasingly unavoidable decision: self-censor, or vacate the Chinese market and potentially lose out on revenue. Compromise looks increasingly unrealistic, and as the value and power of the Chinese market grows, it becomes more and more unlikely that the Chinese government will back down. 

The NBA, if it wishes to continue to do business in China, must officially commit to doing so. If the NBA wants to uphold freedom of speech within the association, then it must end its investments in China. By not making a decision, the NBA is inviting further controversies, that will do nothing but weaken the association.

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