• Justin Quinn

Global Expansion Bringing Global Problems Close to Home for the NBA


With the NBA's reach extending further than ever before globally, it has found itself embroiled in a tense international situation, one that is beginning to be felt both in business interests and outspoken players like the Boston Celtics' Enes Kanter.

After Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey sparked an international incident by tweeting his support for pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, the ripples have been shaking a delicate balance the league has attempted to maintain in light of their considerable investment in that country.

Much the league's international (and overall) viewership is based in that country, and numerous endorsement deals for players depend on China's government viewing the partnership positively.

After said government's aggressive response to Morey's tweet exploded into the news cycle last week, all of that was thrown into question, with the league seeming to bend to the will of China under duress, in turn dragging politicians into the fray, defending the Rockets' General Manager's free speech against the chilling effect they claimed China was having on US companies and speech more generally.

At the same time, NBA players found themselves the face of the league while in China to play preseason games, and several players -- especially Los Angeles Lakers LeBron James -- were critical of the league for putting players in such a situation without a clear stance from the outset.

Even after the league reversed course and made a stand in favor of the free speech of front office employees and players, the fallout continued even as hints of a return to normalcy began to appear.

While the threat of severing ties put those endorsement deals, games, and even three of the NBA's new international development academies at risk, the backlash created by China's stance likely created more problems for that country than it solved, drawing increased scrutiny on its internal affairs instead of diminishing them.

At the same time, Tencent, the NBA's local partner for streaming games, quietly began to resume broadcast preseason games, LeBron decided to criticize Morey's actions, breathing new life into the controversy, and evoking a pointed response from Boston's Enes Kanter for appearing to value profit over support for free speech.

James' response to Morey's act was a surprising departure from his usual support for social justice, instead focused on the potential financial impact the General Manager's comments had on the league as a whole (per Deadspin's Chris Thompson):

"We all talk about this freedom of speech—yes, we all do have freedom of speech, but at times there are ramifications for the negative, that can happen, um, when you’re not thinking about others, or you’re only thinking about yourself. So, I don’t believe—I don’t want to get into a word or a sentence feud with Daryl, with Daryl Morey, but I believe he wasn’t educated on the situation at hand, and he spoke.

And so many people could have been harmed, not only financially but physically, emotionally, spiritually. So just be careful what we tweet, what we say, and what we do, even though, yes, we do have freedom of speech, but there can be a lot of negative that comes with that, too."

New York Post

The unusual change in footing was met with surprise and even derision by James' peers and fans alike, including the always-frank Kanter, who seemingly took issue with LeBron's words in a series of tweets including a reference to his personal sacrifices resulting from his outspokenness on the Turkish political situation, another fraught topic for the league given the state of affairs with that country and the US presidency at the moment.

After Kanter's ancestral homeland invaded northern Syria after the US military was ordered to withdraw, the unreserved center released an editorial in the Boston Globe on the topic, with what might be perceived as shade at James and the league for their own silence on similarly thorny issues:

"Constant pressure by Turkish consulates across the United States, as well as pervasive and continual harassment by the government in Turkey, has so far failed to stifle my dissent. As they increase the pressure, I raise my voice. I won’t be deterred. They’re wasting their time.

How can I stay silent? There are tens of thousands of people — including teachers, doctors, members of the judiciary and military, lawyers, bureaucrats, journalists, and activists — in prisons for years just because they’re not die-hard followers of Erdogan. Hundreds of babies are growing up in small prison cells with their mothers. Democracy today is on life support, if not dead, and anyone who speaks up faces prison time."

Houston Press

Such a stance, if nothing else, stands in stark contrast to LeBron's words, which he clarified as being more about the impact of Morey's words and the importance of being informed (something the GM himself later admitted he was not well-versed in) on complex issues.

Several popular media outlets questioned the firmness of the ground such a position rests on, however, such as Deadspin's Chris Thompson, who opined, "you absolutely do not need to know any Chinese history whatsoever to support the prerogative of citizens of a semi-autonomous state to resist authoritarian rule."

"Daryl Morey could have a PhD in Chinese History and ... it would not have reduced by one iota the ferocity of the Chinese response ... LeBron’s comments reflect a particularly cynical kind of pragmatism. The “thinking about others” part can be understood to mean that livelihoods—in particular, the livelihoods of members of the NBPA—are affected by a conflict of this magnitude with an entity in control of as much basketball revenue as the Chinese government."

And in this sense, James is certainly not off-base, as the potential impact of losing China as an NBA market would be utterly devastating to the league and its long term plans, setting back robust growth by years if not decades. And the end result is the players, the true source of all these concrete and potential earnings losses, would be the ones left holding the bag.

Players, as individuals, also face losses due to the fallout of Morey's tweet. Boston's Gordon Hayward, Golden State Warriors Klay Thompson and Kevon Looney and Los Angeles Laker Rajon Rondo have endorsement deals with Chinese shoemaker Anta, and many others hold endorsement deals with other Chinese companies like Peak and Li Ning.

While it may indeed be unfair to single out Morey for what in many other contexts would be a throwaway tweet at best, James' and other players' ire at the league for being left rudderless in terms of having a clear protocol in place on such issues provides a window to some of the intense difficulties the league faces in embracing a more global market.

Will the NBA choose values more aligned with the domestic politics and culture of the United States and Canada, or continue trying to walk a tightrope that is respectful to local views of global partners in a way that may chafe, even inflame, the governments, people, and politicians of the cities and nations it began in?

Can this situation be mitigated without compromising the business side of the NBA's interests? How important are the values of free speech and support of democracy to an organization whose primary mission entails neither, but arose in a context dedicated to its preservation? The league is at the center of international politics, but in a way it never imagined or hoped for, and one that is certainly not sustainable.

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