The Seven Words That Are Shaking the NBA
The NBA and its commissioner, Adam Silver, have consistently been progressive with their decisions. Now, with millions of dollars on the line, will they stick to their word?
Seven words is all it takes. “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong,” said Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets, in a since-deleted tweet. With just those seven words, Morey sparked an ideological debate, a crossfire between nations, and the beginning of what may be the NBA’s biggest crisis since Donald Sterling’s comments were leaked in 2014.
While many figures in sports have spoken out on political issues before, they mostly did so on issues in the United States, where freedom of speech is guaranteed. Certainly, Morey is different than past sports figures because he spoke out on Chinese politics. China’s government is so controlling that their mainland population couldn’t read Morey’s now-deleted tweet if they wanted to.
Within a few hours, the governor of the team, Tillman Fertitta, put out a response saying Morey did not speak for the organization, and that the Rockets were a non-political organization.
The NBA added to Fertitta’s stance by putting out a statement. In it, it claimed they regretted the outcry that ensued in China after Morey’s tweet, and they passively attempted to defend Morey while also trying to mend their relationship with the Chinese government.
The NBA and Adam Silver are now in a lose-lose situation, with millions of dollars and the league’s reputation on the line. Silver’s response and further actions will decide what the motivations of the league are — if he conforms to China, he will simply confirm that profit is his top priority (and not the rights of the players), but if he defends Morey’s actions, then he will inevitably strain an already tenuous relationship between players and team governors.
Soon after the league released its statement, reports came out that the upper management of the Rockets were seriously considering firing Morey, who is one of the brightest minds in all of sports. Further complicating matters, the Rockets superstar guard, James Harden, seemingly apologized to China for Morey’s tweet, claiming he and other NBA stars “love China.”
This seems to be an attempt by the NBA and its players to recuperate whatever money they can get from this situation, as they will lose millions of dollars because of this ongoing conflict. China generates about 10% of the league’s revenue, and with such a large population and growing interest in basketball, China was the market with the highest upside for the NBA. Some projections had China generating up to 20% of the league’s revenue by 2030.
Since David Stern was commissioner, the NBA has invested in building connections with China. They have built courts, scheduled events, and played games in China, all of which cost the NBA millions of dollars. But they did all of this with one underlying motivation: profit, or more specifically, the potential millions or even billions of dollars the NBA could eventually make by having China be a primary market.
Now, with Tencent Sports and CCTV no longer broadcasting NBA games, and all 11 official Chinese partners of the NBA suspending their connections with the league, negotiations with China are finished, unless Morey is fired and his words are repudiated.
Certainly, if Morey was fired, only fans of the Rockets and very passionate fans of the league would care deeply. But Morey represents more than just himself and his actions. He represents an ideology, the progressive ideals Silver has been pushing ever since he was named commissioner. And if Silver were to renege on his words and give in to China, he would ruin his growing reputation as a progressive commissioner and would possibly cause an uproar in America.
Consider if a top NBA player, and not Morey, tweeted those seven words. Imagine if this hypothetical NBA star was removed from the league for criticizing the Chinese government. In this scenario, fans everywhere would be upset at the NBA, and the league’s reputation would be that of a profit-driven, conforming league, and not the progressive, player-driven league it sets out to be.
On the other hand, Silver’s decision to protect free speech is not perfect, either. After all, what is the role of a league’s commissioner? It’s not representing the players, especially in the NBA, which has players holding leadership positions in a players’ association (the NBPA). Instead, Silver’s job is to run the league, a league that is controlled just as much by the team governors (formerly referred to as the team owners) as it is by the players. Because it is run in part by the team governors, profit and revenue is a major priority. By choosing to protect players’ rights to free speech, Silver is not only deciding to sacrifice revenue from Chinese markets, but he is also choosing to protect the interests of the players rather than the team governors.
Giving even more leeway to the players has not always turned out well, historically. For example, in the summer of 2016, the salary cap spiked dramatically, causing teams to have to overpay to sign or keep players in free agency. This was all caused by the players association, who fought for the cap to rise dramatically, despite being advised to “smooth” the extra money out incrementally. Team governors were understandably upset over handing out huge salaries to sup-par players, and this issue contributed to the less than ideal relationship between the players and team governors in the NBA.
If Silver continually prioritizes defending the players over generating revenue, then he will soon be fighting multiple battles at once. Not only will he be facing bitter opposition from China, but he will also be receiving anger from the governors of NBA teams, who want to make a profit from their respective teams.
As of today, Silver has already leaned towards supporting the rights of his players, saying he would protect players’ right to express their opinions, and saying that the league has motivations other than “growing our business.”
But as has been touched upon earlier, Silver is now creating a second issue by doing so. While coverage of the opinions of team governors has been extremely limited (outside of Fertitta’s initial tweet, there has been almost no coverage), one can presume that they would like to maintain ties with Chinese businesses in the name of profit, even if it meant firing Morey and/or somewhat monitoring what players could say. And if a power struggle between players and governors ensues, Silver will have another large-scale issue on his hands.
Only time will tell what actions or inaction Silver will take. But if this issue grows beyond the NBA and becomes an international issue with hostility between two nations, just remember, all it took to start this crisis was seven words.
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