Does the NBA Have a Moral Obligation to Stand up to China?

In January of 2017, Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr denounced President Trump’s decision to sign an executive order that temporarily prevented travelers from entering the United States if they were arriving from one of seven predominantly Muslim nations. The order, which was characterized by many as a Muslim travel ban, also suspended the admission of Syrian refugees into the country. Kerr called the decision a “horrible idea” that could have significant unintended consequences. "If anything, we could be breeding anger and terror,” he said. “So I'm completely against what's happening."

San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich expressed similar feelings. Asked for his thoughts on the matter, Toronto Raptors star Kyle Lowry didn’t mince words, calling the order “absolute bullshit.” Boston Celtics center Enes Kanter took to Twitter to share his “disbelief” over the administration’s decision. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban told CNN’s Erin Burnett that he thought the order was “half-assed and half-baked.” And during an awards ceremony for the NAACP, the legendary Lebron James said, “I stand with the many, many Americans who believe this does not represent what the United States is all about."

During that same ceremony, James stated that "it's important that we as athletes continue to use the platform we have to speak up for what we believe in.” That quote seems particularly relevant to the ongoing controversy over Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey’s tweet in support of Hong Kong protesters. After rushing to apologize for Morey’s alleged insensitivity, the NBA has been wrestling with backlashes on both sides of the world—one in the United States for capitulating to a ruthless communist government, and one in China for not coming down harder on Morey. 

The Morey controversy isn’t just about Hong Kong, though—or at least it shouldn’t be. It should also be about the stomach-churning abuses endured by China’s Muslim population. Human rights organizations estimate that over a million Muslims have been rounded up and placed in “reeducation camps,” while many more have been prosecuted and sentenced to decades behind bars. Some of the Muslim women who have fled China for Kazakhstan allege that they were forced to undergo abortions. Others claim that, while detained by government authorities, they were filmed while showering and had chili paste applied to their private parts. 

The NBA has thus far been in no rush to use its influence to take meaningful action on that issue, and its brightest stars haven’t had much to say about it either, which is really quite astounding. How can the same people who loudly voiced their opposition to Trump’s Muslim travel ban exhibit such passive indifference toward the incomprehensible abuses being perpetrated on Chinese Muslims?

To find the answer to that question, and to understand the league’s hesitation to throw its support behind the protesters fighting for democracy in Hong Kong, one need look no further than the very profitable relationships between China, the NBA, the NBA’s most recognizable stars, and corporations like Nike and Tencent. Since Morey’s tweet set off a firestorm in China, billions of dollars in streaming contracts, sponsorships, endorsement deals, and merchandise sales have been put at risk, which is likely the reason why Houston Rockets star James Harden issued his own apologetic statement to China with fellow star Russell Westbrook standing by his side. It’s also likely the reason why Houston Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta felt compelled to point out that Daryl Morey does not speak for the Rockets, and that the franchise considers itself an apolitical organization

Did Fertitta feel the need to issue a similar statement after former Rockets point guard Chris Paul spoke out in support of Black Lives Matter in 2016? If so, I haven’t been able to find it. And I doubt I will, seeing as how Paul was well within his rights to stand up for a cause he passionately supports.

In this era of economic globalization, the necessity of playing footsie with oppressive governments is mostly taken for granted, which is why the NBA’s budding relationship with China has previously been met with few objections from the American public. But now, as the Chinese regime wails and whines like a narcissistic child, the question must be asked: Does the NBA have a moral obligation to stand up to Chinese oppression?

I believe it does.

When North Carolina legislators passed the state’s infamous “bathroom bill” in 2016, the NBA didn’t need to take sides. It could have taken the position that while players, coaches, and league personnel are free to speak their minds about sensitive issues, the league itself is an apolitical organization that doesn’t get involved in legislative squabbles. That’s essentially the position NBA Commissioner Adam Silver tried to take when he issued his own statement about Morey’s tweet this past Tuesday. “It is inevitable that people around the world -- including from America and China -- will have different viewpoints over different issues,” he said. “It is not the role of the NBA to adjudicate those differences.”

However, that’s not the position Silver and the NBA took during the debate over the North Carolina bathroom bill. Instead, the league took a very firm and very public stand against that bill. In doing so, it established itself as an independent moral agent bound by duty to confront what it regards as immoral government policies. And when it took the additional step of canceling the 2017 NBA All-Star game in Charlotte, the league also established itself as a moral agent that’s willing to take punitive actions against governments that propose and enact such policies. That decision signaled its commitment to not only speak out against state-sponsored injustices, but to also proactively use its influence to fight those injustices. 

When dealing with China, though, the league has been much less enthusiastic about sticking to that commitment. 

A few notable figures have defended the NBA’s hesitance to take on China by arguing that it isn’t the league’s place to involve itself in the internal affairs of a sovereign foreign nation. Former player Cuttino Mobley made just such an argument on the FOX Sports program Speak for Yourself. “When we take a stand, as far as in America—Steve Kerr, Gregg Popovich, Lebron, whoever it is, myself, you, whoever it is—that’s in our backyard,” he explained. “This is not our backyard.”

The problem with that argument is that for the last several decades, the NBA has executed its expansion into China with unbridled intensity. It now has offices in three Chinese cities—Beijing, Shanghai, and Taipei. In 2016, they constructed three new training centers in Xinjiang, an autonomous region in northwestern China where the local Uighur population is living through a government-orchestrated atrocity of immeasurable proportions. Many past and present NBA stars, including Dwyane Wade, Klay Thompson, and Gordon Hayward have signed endorsement deals with Chinese apparel manufacturers and routinely travel to China to promote their brands. 

Like it or not, China has most certainly become the NBA’s backyard, and that’s because the league made the choice to cultivate a mutually profitable partnership with one of the most tyrannical governments in the modern world. It can’t just turn around now and try to wash its hands of the moral implications of that partnership, especially after spending the last several years promoting itself as a paragon of progressive virtue. But I suspect that’s precisely what it’s going to do. Turning a blind eye to injustice always costs less—in monetary terms, at least—than choosing to confront it.

But what about individual players and coaches? Do they deserve as much scrutiny and criticism as the NBA does? 

In the past, I’ve defended the right of public figures to pick and choose their political battles. I stuck up for Taylor Swift when her progressive critics attacked her for not endorsing Hillary Clinton in 2016 and not attending the Women’s March in 2017. The way I see it, celebrities don’t owe us their opinions or their activism; that’s not the service we pay them for. But they don’t owe us their silence, either. When they choose to wade into political waters and use their platforms to support a cause they care deeply about or endorse a presidential candidate, their right to do so should be respected. I reject the conservative argument that actors like Lena Dunham and Leonardo DiCaprio, musicians like Madonna and Eminem, and athletes like Lebron James and Colin Kaepernick should just shut up and entertain us. Celebrities are free to speak about any subject they want, political or otherwise, and the rest of us are free to either listen or walk away. The Morey controversy hasn’t changed my mind about that. 

However, there are quite a few players and coaches whose political activism has become a core component of their public personas, and many of those same players and coaches have reaped enormous benefits from their relationships with a nation whose government makes President Trump look like a regular Mother Theresa. Is it really so unreasonable to ask them to clarify their positions on the Hong Kong protests or China’s treatment of its Muslim citizens? I don’t think so. When you as a public figure start using your platform to espouse and promote a particular set of values, you implicitly accept the responsibility of leading by example. And if it appears that you’re failing to live up to that responsibility by acting in violation of those values, it’s perfectly fair for fans and critics alike to start asking questions. Though if the Houston Rockets’ treatment of reporter Christina Macfarlane is anything to go by, I doubt we’ll be getting the answers to those questions anytime soon.

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