Though “NBA” stands for “National Basketball Association,” professional basketball is proudly, and very profitably, international. Unlike American football, for example, whose fan base is largely restricted to the United States, the NBA has followers and broadcasting contracts all over the world. In this country, the NBA also prides itself on its social consciousness. Rather than punishing players for political statements and gestures, as the National Football League has done, or carefully avoiding politics, as Major League Baseball generally does, the NBA has encouraged its players and coaches to speak out on controversial issues. Two of the league’s most successful and respected coaches, Gregg Popovich and Steve Kerr, have distinguished themselves as vocal critics of President Trump. Several of the league’s stars, including Lebron James, have spoken boldly in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
But now these two distinctive features of the NBA—its international reach and its commitment to free expression—suddenly appear to be at odds. There are still parts of the world where the price of doing business is keeping your mouth shut. In early October Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets, tweeted an image with the words “Fight For Freedom. Stand With Hong Kong.” The Chinese government was outraged by this expression of solidarity with protestors. After being publicly rebuked by Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta, Morey deleted the offending tweet, which few people in mainland China could have seen (Twitter has been banned there since 2009). But it was already too late. The Chinese Basketball Association suspended all cooperation with the Rockets, one of the most popular NBA teams in China. Chinese broadcasters said they would no longer televise or stream Rockets games, and Chinese sponsors cut all ties with the team. According to the NBA’s commissioner, Adam Silver, China even asked the league to fire Morey, though officials in Beijing deny this.