Last Friday night, a man named Daryl tweeted an image that read “FIGHT FOR FREEDOM/STAND WITH HONG KONG.” Daryl didn’t mention China, nor any specific objections or desired outcomes regarding the Hong Kong protests, a movement sparked by opposition to a Chinese extradition bill that’s grown to encompass demands for universal suffrage and an end to police brutality.
But this Daryl was Daryl Morey, general manager of the NBA’s Houston Rockets, one of the league’s most celebrated executives for a team that may be the NBA’s most popular Chinese export. And his comments ignited an immediate, chilling backlash from the Chinese government, from Morey’s billionaire boss, and from the forever faux-progressive NBA, all of which remind us that capitalism and human decency are irreconcilable.
In the little over three days since Morey’s tweet, the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) suspended cooperation with the Rockets, a week after the CBA’s Shanghai Sharks played the Rockets in an exhibition game in Houston. Chinese television announced it will no longer broadcast two surefire ratings-grabbing games this week between the Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets. The government cancelled the Nets’ scheduled appearance at a court refurbishment ceremony at a Shanghai primary school. The sports website Hupu halted all coverage of the Rockets and locked their team section on the site. Tencent Holdings, the NBA’s official Chinese digital partner, dropped all media coverage of Morey and any reports or streaming of Houston’s games. Sporting goods brand Li-Ning said it’s ceasing cooperation with Houston due to Morey’s “mistaken remarks.” Taobao, the Chinese e-commerce platform, now returns zero results for the search term “Houston Rockets.”
China’s response was no more disgusting than that of Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta, who managed to simultaneously get on his high horse and grovel before the bottom dollar. “Listen,” he tweeted Friday night, “@dmorey does NOT speak for the @HoustonRockets. Our presence in Tokyo is all about the promotion of the @NBA internationally and we are NOT a political organization.”
Few bromides are more exhausting than elite dismissals of “politics” as if it’s some congenital defect the bulk of us suffer that they’re blessed with immunity against. It’s like the very virus that’s killing you complaining about the stench. Appeasing an autocracy because it’s profitable is as political as acts get.
Fertitta’s penchant for money over humanity is well-established. Two years ago the restaurateur — worth nearly $5 billion — kvetched that “We can’t afford to do it” in response to San Francisco’s new employer health care mandate. “All these states now are doing their own mandates. Why should the city of San Francisco be able to do absolutely whatever they want to do? I feel like all states and cities should have to abide by what the federal government thinks instead of the whim of somebody that is elected for a couple of years.” Safe to assume the man who has praised Donald Trump would support abolishing term limits so as not to subject Americans to the whim of somebody elected for only four years.
As for NBA commissioner and progressive cosplayer Adam Silver, he told the media that Morey “is supported in terms of his ability to exercise his freedom of expression” while adding, seemingly exasperated, “I can’t ultimately run the NBA based on trying to satisfy everyone on Twitter. For those who choose to engage, they’ll see that we are dealing with a complex set of issues.”
In 2014, when Los Angeles Clippers owner and longtime racist slumlord Donald Sterling was recorded making bigoted remarks, Silver did not view the scandal as complex; in under a week Sterling was banned for life from the NBA; in just over a month the Clippers were sold to a new owner. In 2017 the NBA pulled the All-Star game out of Charlotte after North Carolina passed HB2, a law limiting LGBTQ anti-discrimination protections. No struggle with complexity then. In each instance, the league’s profit margins were secure: Charlotte is no major media market, and replacing Sterling with the wealthier, more charismatic and not slumlord-y Steve Ballmer was an obvious boon, ultimately turning a moribund franchise into one of the NBA’s glamour organizations.
Yesterday Silver again defended Morey’s right to freedom of expression: “The NBA will not put itself in a position of regulating what players, employees and team owners say or will not say on these issues. We simply could not operate that way.” Silver added the NBA understands there are consequences to exercising that freedom and that the league “will have to live with those consequences.” The commissioner will be in Shanghai Thursday for the Lakers/Nets game, hoping to repair relations with the Chinese government. This is Silver’s first great test as commissioner. It’d be unprecedented for the NBA to take any stance that threatens its profit margin. If the league truly wishes for its claims of progressivism to carry any weight, standing up to Beijing’s authoritarianism would be a start.
The Morey tweet fallout has been predictable, dark, and disappointing. Chinese state television announced they oppose “Silver’s claim to support Morey’s freedom of expression.” Rockets’ star guard James Harden apologized while offering vague platitudes about China offering “the most important love.” Morey issued a follow-up tweet praising “our Chinese fans and sponsors”; the term “Hong Kong” was noticeably absent.
Ultimately, this isn’t about China, or the NBA, or a man named Daryl. It’s about the people of Hong Kong fighting for their democratic rights. The rush by a superpower and a global business to erase Hong Kong from the discussion is inseparable from the push to erase the protests and protestors, too.
Ten years ago, Turkey’s autocratic president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, said Chinese’s Uighir Muslims were suffering a genocide at the hands of the Chinese government. Today more than a million Uighirs are incarcerated in Xinjiang and millions more suffer forced assimilation. Last summer, while visiting Beijing to promote a new Silk Road connecting Asia and Europe, one that would boost Turkey’s struggling economy, Erdoğan praised Chinese sovereignty.
Even brutal strongmen will cower for the right price. We can’t look to global industry, nor successful businesspeople, nor intelligent, well-meaning executives for models of resistance.