Unspoken Strings

The real problem with the NBA.

The NBA blogosphere and the foreign policy intelligentsia are dipping their toes into each other’s worlds amid the firestorm created by Rockets’ General Manager Daryl Morey’s anodyne tweet supporting freedom of speech and assembly in Hong Kong, but each community seems to be talking past each other. The NBA world is reluctant and ill-prepared to talk about anything outside of basketball, while the foreign policy community is ill-equipped to handle the NBA’s various interests. As an avid NBA fan (go Blazers!) and foreign policy professional, I feel somewhat qualified to share my thoughts. 

The conversation has led to an important question: How do companies, particularly companies that purport to hold a certain worldview, do business with China without sacrificing the values they hold? What has gotten lost in the conversation, however, is that doing business in China intrinsically means acquiescing to some demands of the Chinese Communist Party. Entering the Chinese market comes at the cost of the right to criticize the Chinese system. As the Taiwanese-Canadian co-founder of Chinese search engine Alibaba and Brooklyn Nets owner Joe Tsai put it in his statement on Morey, there are issues in China that are a “third-rail issue” for Chinese citizens, which in his words include “supporting a separatist movement in a Chinese territory.” Such topics are often left unspoken, as Chinese citizens can be jailed for speaking out on them.

All of these issues have enormous human costs, but that doesn’t change the fact that the 1.4 billion-person Chinese market is droolworthy.

It’s been understood that in order to do business in the Chinese market, the “Three Ts” (Tibet, Taiwan, and Tiananmen Square) are off-limits. Recently, it appears Hong Kong and the treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang province have been added to this list. All of these issues have enormous human costs, but that doesn’t change the fact that the 1.4 billion-person Chinese market is droolworthy. Several non-Chinese companies have been forced to publicly apologize for running afoul of China’s limits on speech. However, as companies begin to bristle against China’s demands, and as the myth that liberal economics create liberal politics becomes increasingly apparent, serious questions the morality of doing business in China, and what a company is forced to sacrifice, will continue to arise.

The NBA banked its growth in the 21st century on access to the Chinese market. And since Adam Silver, the commissioner of the NBA, is seen as a progressive leader, there is hope among activists that he’ll stand his ground over the legitimate human rights abuses in China. However, as the NBA commentariat has pointed out, Silver has to act in the rational interests of his bosses: the owners of the 30 NBA teams. The reality is that revenue generated from China does have an on-court impact. Revenue determines the NBA salary cap, and teams make roster decisions based on multi-year revenue projections. So Silver’s stuck: he can take on the Chinese Communist Party and risk billions of dollars, or he can obey China’s demands and risk his image. We’ve already seen politicians line up to criticize his perceived hypocrisy. But Silver’s recent comments indicate the league is already feeling the consequences. 

The NBA has spent decades cultivating this relationship with China. And while they want to frame their footprint in China as a people-to-people cultural exchange that fosters greater understanding, it’s not that simple in an authoritarian state. The problem ultimately comes down to values. Does the NBA care more about standing up for human rights and freedom of expression? Or, does it care about its wallet just a little bit more?

Louie Reckford is a Policy Associate at Foreign Policy for America covering Iran, North Korea, and arms control issues. He previously spent five years as an aide to Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) working on foreign affairs, defense, and veteran’s affairs in support of the Senator’s work on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Originally from Portland, OR, Louie has spent two decades praying for a Portland Trailblazers NBA championship.