The China juggernaut is taking over world sport, and the NBA won’t be the last to cave in

An American basketball manager sparked a diplomatic row with a tweet supporting Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters. The climbdown in the face of China’s outrage speaks volumes about how international sport works

Simon Chadwick
Tuesday 08 October 2019 16:57 BST
‘For a sports league that has been cultivating its presence in China for almost two decades, American basketball’s response to the growing debacle has been swift’
‘For a sports league that has been cultivating its presence in China for almost two decades, American basketball’s response to the growing debacle has been swift’

After months of turmoil in Hong Kong, mounting violence in the territory set against the backdrop of an increasingly bellicose China recently prompted the Houston Rockets basketball franchise’s general manager, Daryl Morey, to tweet: “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.”

What Morey presumably viewed as his democratic right to freely express an opinion sparked a furious row, which has now escalated to such an extent that it could well become a full-scale diplomatic incident.

Indeed, should Donald Trump choose to make one of his typically inelegant interventions on Twitter, then sport will move centre stage in the already fractious relationship between Washington and Beijing.

Corporate China quickly moved to condemn the Rockets manager’s post, entirely predictable given the inevitably political nature of doing business there. One of the National Basketball Association’s media partners, Tencent, and Chinese state broadcaster CCTV have issued statements that they will not be broadcasting the Texas franchise’s games. The Chinese sports apparel brand Li Ning has also sought to distance itself from what it has called “upsetting comments”.

On Monday, CCTV weighed in during a live news broadcast by asserting that “[Morey’s] support for Hong Kong’s thugs offends all Chinese people, who take a zero-toleration stance on any challenge against national sovereignty. Double-faced Daryl Morey must apologise”.

For a sports league that has been cultivating its presence in China for almost two decades, American basketball’s response to the growing debacle has been swift, albeit rather scrambled, laden with a sense of damage limitation. Houston owner Tilman Fertitta was at pains to emphasise that Morey had not spoken on behalf of the franchise.

In turn, the National Basketball Association (NBA) issued a press release in which it acknowledged that Morey’s words had “deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China”. The NBA went on to say “we have great respect for the history and culture of China and hope that sports and the NBA can be used as a unifying force to bridge cultural divides and bring people together”.

Behind the NBA’s rather lame “sport for good” manifesto, which the association’s PR team clearly felt was the right positioning for a clarifying statement, there lies a stark reality: over the last two decades, the NBA has spent millions of dollars and countless hours in its quest to become the West’s pre-eminent sports franchise in China.

A contrite (though probably forced) Morey eventually took to Twitter again, posting a cowed message: “I did not intend my tweet to cause any offense to Rockets fans and friends of mine in China. I was merely voicing one thought, based on one interpretation, of one complicated event. I have had a lot of opportunity since that tweet to hear and consider other perspectives.”

Fine words indeed, mirroring those of some Chinese business leaders who have previously found themselves temporarily detained by the state for the purposes of corrective education. There is a growing sense in this matter that one is either with China or against China.

This has been suitably embodied in comments made by Joseph Tsai, the co-founder and executive vice-chairman of China’s Alibaba, but also owner of the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets franchise. Whilst Tsai has stopped short of directly attacking Morey, his proclamations about the matter have been striking.

In a public statement, Tsai stressed that “Supporting a separatist movement in a Chinese territory is one of those third-rail issues, not only for the Chinese government, but also for all Chinese citizens … when it comes to the territorial integrity of China and the country’s sovereignty over her homeland [the] issue is non-negotiable.”

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Tsai’s wording was provocative, not least amongst those who do not view the Hong Kong protesters as separatists but as people simply exercising their democratic rights and concerns for the future. It will be interesting to see how America’s basketball courts respond to Tsai and to his franchise’s association with what many in the US will see as an increasingly authoritarian Chinese regime.

The whole episode induces some tired clichés in one’s mind, such as: “Sport and politics don’t mix” and “Sport shouldn’t be about business”. Yet this incident is the car crash that was inevitably going to happen. When financially avaricious western sports franchises choose to do business in undemocratic countries like China, the potential for damaging clashes is always there.

Yet American basketball is not the only sport playing the game, as the endless flow of European football clubs into China demonstrates. What these organisations need to keep in mind is that while their commercial strategies and revenue generating tactics may not seem untoward, the unfortunate reality is that they are both an implied political judgement and an exercise in ceding power to government in Beijing.

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