China and the NBA: Testing American Consumer Morality

Matthew Buzard
Oct 18, 2019 · 4 min read
Chinese flags outside an NBA-themed lifestyle complex on the outskirts of Tianjin, China, October 10, 2019. (Jason Lee/Reuters)

The Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey stirred controversy when he tweeted out an image that read, “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.” Quickly after, Morey deleted the tweet and apologized for offending fans and “friends of mine in China.” NBA players and coaches — who have a reputation of being outspoken with domestic political issues — were either strikingly silent or tremendously lenient in their public responses, and unwilling to denounce China amidst Hong Kong’s push for greater sovereignty and democracy. Public bipartisan backlash ensued.

Commentators from MSNBC to Fox News strongly condemned the statements made by the NBA players and coaches. Senator Ted Cruz and House Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez even co-signed a letter criticizing the NBA’s handling of the situation. Commentators were also quick to point out the seemingly hypocritical nature of players and coaches who easily denounce injustices in America, but ignore injustices overseas that affect their paychecks. Notably, superstar LeBron James told reporters Morey was “uneducated” on the topic, and should’ve better understood the “ramifications” of the tweet.

As a reminder, the Chinese government, among other things, regularly imprisons those who speak out against the government, controls the media/internet, forced millions of abortions during their “one child” policy, and currently hold over one million Muslims in internment camps.

It’s pretty clear what’s happening here: the NBA, the players, and the apparel companies have much to gain through their relationship with China. It’s clear that the NBA (and the players) are willing to look the other way when it comes to human rights issues, so long as they get paid. This should shock no one.

Large corporations — like the NBA, Nike, or Disney — do not have morality, loyalty, or political opinions. Large corporations care about one thing: making money. If a corporation publicly endorses a moral or political viewpoint, they are only doing so because they believe it will help them financially. If the opposing viewpoint becomes more financially advantageous, the corporation will change its “stance.” For example, the NBA is pro free speech for players and coaches, unless it affects their monetary interests with China. The individuals and employees running the business may have their own personal philosophies, but they won’t publicly espouse their beliefs if those beliefs would hurt the bottom line.

The NBA has the most liberal fan base of all the major sports, according to a FiveThirtyEight poll. So, it makes business sense for the NBA to allow players to opine on political issues with a liberal bent. However, China pulling out of their deals with the NBA will severely hurt the NBA’s overall revenue, so it makes no business sense for the NBA to denounce the Chinese government. It may be immoral and wrong, but the NBA is a business like all others. Look, the hypocrisy of progressive NBA players and coaches staying silent — or outwardly supporting the Chinese government — is striking and abhorrent, but again it’s not surprising.

But this is an issue that should spark discussion and consideration in all our lives. What are you willing to accept in exchange for a better financial position? We all have purchased and currently own products that were manufactured in China. It seems wrong to be aggressively denouncing the NBA while simultaneously using products that were cheaply manufactured in countries across the world that commit heinous human rights violations daily. I’m simultaneously disgusted by what happens regularly in countries like China, but also I love the ability to buy a cheap stuff on Amazon. Can I really be so high and mighty here?

Consumers dictate markets. If you have problems with a company or country, you should try financially harming the company or country by not purchasing the products they produce. We the American people have given China the thumbs-up because we the American consumers love their cheap exports.

Maybe this NBA-China mess could get Americans to start considering where their products come from, and whether they should support certain manufacturers. Maybe we could choose to greater emphasize those products manufactured in countries with basic human rights, and maybe then we could push real change. Or, I guess, we could keep tweeting about the NBA and China from our iPhones.

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