Over the weekend, Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey sent out what would seem to the average person to be a pretty innocuous tweet: “Fight For Freedom. Stand With Hong Kong.”
Morey was voicing support for the ongoing pro-democracy protests taking place in the city. He certainly wasn’t expressing an uncommon opinion — American politicians on both sides of the aisle have also praised the historic protests. But China didn’t like Morey’s tweet. Presumably acting upon the demands of the Chinese government, Chinese businesses began pulling their NBA sponsorships, and Chinese broadcasters and streaming platforms threatened to stop airing NBA games altogether.
The NBA acted quickly, issuing one statement in English apologizing to China for Morey’s “regrettable” statement and one statement “translated” into Mandarin, which articulated something entirely different, according to ABC News — that the NBA was “extremely disappointed” with Morey’s “inappropriate” tweet that “severely hurt the feelings of Chinese fans.” Two of Morey’s best players on the Houston Rockets, James Harden and Russell Westbrook, also came out and publicly apologized, insisting, “We love China.”
Morey, of course, deleted the tweet and did what is typically required of sinners against social justice here in the United States — he genuflected towards the powers that be, offered a humiliating apology, and all but begged for the preservation of his career. But in this case, Morey wasn’t sinning against social justice, he was sinning against the powerful Chinese government, a brutal authoritarian regime that imprisons, tortures, and murders political dissidents, religious minorities, and anyone who dares promote democracy. Troublingly, this dictatorial power now appears to extend even into the U.S., with Morey’s public admonishment likely to have a chilling effect on any future high-profile criticism of the Chinese regime.
But while China’s actions were to be expected, the NBA’s response was far more surprising. After all, the NBA in recent years has been carefully working to craft the opposite brand — of a league committed to doing the right thing, to standing up against tyranny, to defending the rights of the downtrodden and the disenfranchised.
It was this supposed commitment that has led the NBA to increasingly throw its weight behind progressive political causes in recent years, most notably the transgender rights movement. In 2016, for example, in response to the passage of a bill in North Carolina which made public bathroom usage contingent on biological sex, the NBA helped lead a corporate bullying campaign against the state. Joining with companies like PayPal, Bank of America, and Adidas, as well as musicians like Ringo Starr, Bruce Springsteen, and Pearl Jam, the NBA threatened to boycott activity in North Carolina (in particular, pledging to move its All-Star Game from Charlotte), hoping that the economic blackmail would force the state government to repeal the legislation. Although the campaign was only partially successful, the league has since threatened to boycott other states over similar legislation.