The Cheat Sheet

Free speech makes for dirty business. Just ask the NBA

Venky Vembu | Updated on October 10, 2019

Like many businesses wanting to profit from the China market, the NBA is being forced to put its money where its mouth is

NBA, the US basketball league?

Yup, the same NBA that debuted in India last week with a pre-season game in Mumbai.

What does shooting hoops have to do with free speech?

Plenty. The NBA is at the centre of a political firestorm in China, and even faces the prospect of a shutout from that lucrative market, which it has been actively courting for years.

Whoa, what happened?

It all started last week when Daryl Morey, the General Manager of the Houston Rockets, one of the most popular NBA franchises in China, put out a tweet.

Ah, Twitter, the platform for thoughtful discourse…

I can sense the snark in your tone. In this case, Morey’s tweet said: “Fight for freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.” The context for this was the months-long protests raging across Hong Kong, directed at Chinese encroachments on the autonomy promised to the Special Administrative Region. And although Morey deleted his tweet — and Twitter is blocked in China — it was already too late. The flutter of the Twitter bird’s wings set off a hurricane in China.

Tell me more.

The Houston Rockets immediately came under commercial fire. Some of China’s biggest brand names — from sportswear maker Li-Ning to streaming service Tencent Sports to Shanghai Pudong Development Bank — ended their association with the Rockets. Even the Chinese Basketball Association, a local league headed by the legendary Yao Ming (whom the Rockets had drafted in 2002), severed its ties with the team. The Rockets’ owner threw Morey under the bus, saying he “does NOT speak for” the team.

‘Houston, we have a problem!’

You bet. But it got bigger when the NBA got dragged in. It put out two statements: one in English, the other in Chinese. The English release emphasised that the “values of the league support individuals’ educating themselves and share their views on matters important to them.” But the Chinese-language release sounded somewhat craven.

What were they thinking?

The duplicitous tone of the two releases angered free-speech advocates back in the US, and showed the NBA’s hypocritical stand: kowtowing to China while defending free speech and progressive values in the US, and even the rights of players to “take the knee” during the national anthem as a form of protest. NBA stars have spoken up against racism and police violence in the US, as well as against Donald Trump’s policy towards immigrants. Realising that the NBA stands on slippery ground, its commissioner Adam Silver took a more principled position, defending franchise players’ and executives’ right to free speech.

How will this end?

Not well, it appears. Chinese authorities and sponsors have amped up pressure on the NBA, including a blackout of pre-season games. More friction lies ahead.

What can we learn from this experience?

China has always forced businesses that look to profit from its market to decide whether they value money, or the values they claim to espouse. Some of the biggest US tech firms (from Cisco to Google) were complicit in China’s tight censorship of the Internet. And even Hollywood has imposed the most craven self-censorship on itself for fear of being shut out of the Chinese market. A recent satirical episode of South Park, centred on the capitulation to China by US companies, notes this wryly.

As China looks to set the tone of the narrative about itself, even beyond its borders, this will likely test companies’ ability to put their money where their mouth is.

A weekly column that helps you ask the right questions

Published on October 10, 2019

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