The Most Daunting Opponent in the NBA Is Not a Team, but China

The 74th NBA season tipped off October 22nd, with the defending champion Toronto Raptors beating the New Orleans Pelicans in overtime, followed by the Los Angeles Clippers defeating their roommates, the Los Angeles Lakers.

The Raptors are coming off of their first NBA Championship, minus Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, who left the Raptors for the Clippers. Leonard and fellow newcomer Paul George lead the new-look Clippers as they battle for the throne of Los Angeles against the revival of the Showtime Lakers, staring Anthony Davis and LeBron James. Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving are now Brooklyn Nets. D’Angelo Russell is the new splash brother alongside Steph Curry as the Warriors open up a new arena, Chase Center, in San Francisco. On top of that, Russell Westbrook and James Harden look to rekindle their chemistry from Oklahoma City in Houston.

The off-season, full of player movement and rap battles between current all-stars and Hall of Famers, has made this season one of the most anticipated seasons ever. However, one tweeted picture overshadowed all of it.

Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey tweeted an image saying “Fight for Freedom. Stand for Hong Kong.” on October 4th. That seven-word tweet caused a firestorm in the basketball world.

Immediately after the tweet was posted, the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) – led by former Houston Rocket Yao Ming – renounced its relationship with the Houston Rockets. The backlash did not end there; rumors swirled that the CBA called for the firing of Daryl Morey from his role in Houston. The NBA, which has been at the forefront of civil rights issues in sport, called Morey’s tweet “regrettable.” LeBron James, who leads the More Than an Athlete campaign, called Morey “misinformed.” And by the way, all of this occurred while the NBA was playing preseason games in China. Canceled media appearances and under-promotion accompanied the NBA’s presence in China, a complete u-turn from years past.

An advertisement promoting NBA preseason games in China is removed after Daryl Morey’s tweet. Source: South China Morning Post / Thomas Yau

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The NBA’s issues are just a small consequence of the events going on in Hong Kong. The Legislative Council of Hong Kong proposed an extradition bill in March, allowing for fugitives located in Hong Kong to be extradited to China. The residents of Hong Kong would now be subject to laws in Hong Kong and Mainland China, reversing the One Country, Two Systems government that has been implemented since China’s annexation of Hong Kong from Great Britain in 1997. Protests have been occurring in Hong Kong since the bill was published in March, sparking Morey’s tweet in support of the protestors.

The impact of the protests has reached the United States, as Congress has passed the initial draft of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, supporting the protest efforts. Currently, the U.S. Government and the NBA stand on opposite sides of the issue. The NBA has allowed its players to speak freely and promote social justice projects of the past. However, current players, outside of LeBron and a small group of others, are mum on this subject. This social situation is different, and one of the primary reasons may be money.

Keith Smith of Yahoo Sports reported that multiple NBA teams are preparing for a scenario where the NBA salary cap would decrease 10 to 15 percent due to the potential loss of revenue from China. Not only will the NBA suffer, but so will Nike. Nike may end up losing money in China after generating $6.21 billion there during fiscal 2019. Contrary to the NBA’s efforts, with Adam Silver releasing an additional statement on the league’s commitment to diversity, these issues are not stopping anytime soon.

CCTV, Chinese state-run television, did not air the opening night of the NBA season. In the United States, Shaquille O’Neal sided with Daryl Morey and the protestors during the opening night broadcast on TNT. Protestors outside of the games in Toronto and Los Angeles supported the residents of Hong Kong. Demonstrators wore “Fight for Freedom . . . China, Stop Bullying” t-shirts at the Houston Rockets game against the New Orleans Pelicans on October 26th. Matters continued to escalate when Vice President Mike Pence stated that the NBA was acting “like a wholly-owned subsidiary” of China.

Frankly, the NBA has tried to appease both China and the protestors who are exercising rights that Americans pride themselves on. But, like all NBA games, there are no ties: someone has to win, and someone has to lose. The NBA, acting alone without the support of other North American sports leagues or companies, is pegged to be the loser.

Professor Scott Galloway of New York University Stern School of Business recommended that other general managers of sports leagues and chief executives officers of the largest sports teams and companies should tweet, in unison, “Fight For Freedom . . . Stand for Hong Kong.” He argues that if everyone unified with Daryl Morey’s stance, China would not be able to do anything.

Isolation is what hurts the NBA the most. Major League Baseball, the National Football League and the National Hockey League have stayed silent. Fortune 500 companies are sweating the financial effects on a profit/loss statement instead of thinking about the grave injustices occurring in a developed market. A unified front would shift matters toward the NBA, as the United States could put their $476 billion of Chinese exports (20% of China’s total exports) at risk. Instead, the NBA is alone in the line of fire.

CCTV, the same state-run television station that did not air the opening night of the NBA season, said that Commissioner Adam Silver will face “retribution” for lying to China by not firing Daryl Morey, as he promised. China is completely unified in their fight against the NBA. One association with revenues of $8 billion, acting against a unified country with a GDP of $12.2 trillion. Who do we really think is going to win this battle? It’s David v. Golliath in every sense. However, unlike the story, David won’t win, especially when there are billions at stake.

Most NBA contests are settled on the court. However, this matter can’t be. As the 74th NBA season is in its infancy, the most daunting opponent for the league is not a team, but the People’s Republic of China.

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