NBA Struggles To Find The Balance Between Free Speech And China’s Sensitivities

CNN’s Christina Macfarlane was cut off at a Japan press conference after an exhibition game between the Houston Rockets and Toronto Raptors. The Rockets have been at the center of a dispute that started when one its executives, general manager Daryl Morey, tweeted support for the pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong.

Macfarlane attempted to ask Rockets stars James Harden and Russell Westbrook whether they would feel comfortable speaking out on political and social issues in the future after the uproar from China in reaction to Morey and the events of this week. The unidentified Rockets media relations person stopped them from answering – even though Harden appeared ready to respond – saying that “basketball questions only” were the only permissible path.

The incident was yet another stain on the league’s effort to find a balance between placating China and avoiding further outraging those who feel the league has been somewhat mealy-mouthed in its defense of free speech. Tim Frank, an NBA senior VP, later called CNN’s Macfarlane to apologize, according to several reports. You can bet the question will be asked again, if not by CNN, then by others.

Despite its attempts to squelch uncomfortable questions on China, the NBA and its Chinese partners face an uphill battle to mend fences on multiple fronts. So far, NBA merchandise has been stripped from Chinese stores, banners touting NBA exhibitions have been taken down, plans to televise and stream games have been halted, and advertising and sponsorships placed on hold. China’s social media has also voiced its outrage at perceived interference in its domestic problems.

Reports indicate China currently contributes 10% of the NBA’s revenue, and represents (or represented) a growing and coveted market. Now, that’s in limbo.

The Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets (owned by Hong Kong resident and Alibaba founder Joe Tsai) played a game Thursday in Shanghai. But the only people who saw it were ticket-holders, and outside the arena, protesters denounced the NBA. Things were so bad that former Houston Rockets star and Hall of Famer Yao Ming, who helped the NBA build a bridge to China and stoked his country’s enthusiasm for the game, skipped an appearance. Ming is the president of the Chinese Basketball Association and a key to ongoing partnerships.

In the US, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s lukewarm defense of free speech has won him little support. No less than President Trump noted that the league, which has shunned the White House and been outspoken in its opposition to many aspects of his administration, had no problem previously speaking up. He particularly targeted Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr, who refused to answer a question on China.

“He couldn’t answer the question — he was shaking, ‘Oh, oh, oh, I don’t know. I don’t know,’” Trump said. “He didn’t know how to answer the question, and yet he’ll talk about the United States very badly.” Trump also had words for San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich. “I watched Popovich — sort of the same thing, but he didn’t look quite as scared actually,” Trump said. “But they talk badly about the United States, but when it talks about China, they don’t want to say anything bad. I thought it was pretty sad, actually. It’ll be very interesting.”

Now, the question centers on how the league can move forward. Prominent game ambassadors like LeBron James, who makes annual trips to China, have yet to make a statement. Will they continue to remain silent?  And how will they respond to charges of hypocrisy if they speak out on US domestic problems, but refuse to address China and its human rights issues?

Other businesses beyond the NBA will also be affected. Television and streaming deals, sneaker and apparel sales, transportation companies and marketing/advertising programs will all take an economic hit if the free speech issues continue to simmer.

It’s only the first quarter of this particular game, and there’s a long season to come. Hollywood already deals with China’s sensitivities in marketing its products. The NBA will provide yet another test case of how to navigate a global community filled with differing opinions. So far, its shots aren’t falling.

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