The NBA is far and away America’s most progressive sports league. This is both its preferred brand and the actual truth. While racial progress is the hallmark of the league’s history of pursuing social justice, it has also made huge symbolic advancements for labor rights as well. Bill Russell essentially helped usher in our modern era of player independence by leading a boycott of the 1964 All Star Game (the first ever televised ASG) unless the league offered its employees a pension plan. In 1954, the top player in the league, Bob Cousy, organized a boycott of the 1955 All-Star Game that never materialized after owners caved to player demands for better pay and benefits. NBA players created the first truly powerful union in professional sports, as the NFL, NHL and MLB all followed suit in the coming years and decades.
This century, the NBA has actively encouraged its players to be activists in their community and beyond—and not the NFL’s kind of “activism” where the league does not seem to care if it happens unless there’s a camera or a (favored) reporter present. There is a genuine push to use the NBA to improve America where its government refuses to. LeBron James, the face of the league and one of the most famous athletes on planet Earth, is America’s most politically-engaged superstar since Muhammad Ali (that is not to say he is on Ali’s level, almost no one is). The NBA itself protested HB2, North Carolina’s 2016 “bathroom bill law” that discriminated against transgender people, and they (temporarily) pulled their All-Star Game out of Charlotte as a result.
It’s not just that social activism is part of the NBA’s brand—it’s embedded in its shared identity, which is why this latest drama with China is so revealing as to what the league’s owners truly value.
Capitalism follows the culture. That’s a common critique of capitalism, but it’s also how making money in any economic system goes so long as human behavior remains the same as it has been for all of recorded history. People associate that type of fraudulent behavior with capitalism likely thanks to the “how do you do, fellow kids?” pitch made by all of its most powerful brands.
What the NBA proved this week is that all their social activism is first and foremost informed by their capitalist incentives. If your average NBA fan was the same as your average Fox News viewer, the owners would force NBA commissioner Adam Silver to don a MAGA hat for his press conferences and announce a new tampering investigation into Hillary Clinton once a week. But because the average NBA viewer has always skewed younger and less white than their three other major American sports counterparts, the NBA’s capitalist activist incentives shift to reflect the values of its customers. That’s not to say that all their social justice efforts are and have been nothing more than cynical ploys for profit and branding—as there are humans operating this system after all—but at its very core, the NBA’s corporate activism isn’t incentivized by activist principles, but capitalist ones.
Which Brings Us to China
If you watched this past week’s episode of South Park about how American companies are bending over backwards to concede to Chinese censorship in order to tap into the lucrative Chinese market, you already know what happened, even if you don’t know exactly what transpired.
On Friday night, Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey sent out a tweet supporting the protesters in Hong Kong who are fighting against a new law which would allow China to extradite people to the mainland (Hong Kong is part of China, but they have an autonomous(?) government in what China’s constitution calls “One country, two systems”). The protests have now expanded to push for a wave of anti-corruption reform in the police.
A short statement by a high-profile GM supporting protestors of an autocratic regime set off an international crisis unlike any the NBA has ever seen, and has proven to everyone that when the rubber meets the road, the NBA is closer to the greed-poisoned NFL than the activist ideal they have spent decades cultivating in the United States. We can put whatever logos and colors we want on all our favorite sports teams, but they’re still almost universally owned by the billionaire class, so why would we expect their teams to ever be anything but what the billionaire class has proven themselves to be?
Morey’s employer, the Houston Rockets, are perhaps the most important non-Lakers NBA franchise in China. Yao Ming, a 7’6” injury-plagued behemoth who at his peak was one of the most imposing and talented big men the sport has ever seen, helped recruit multiple generations of Chinese people to NBA broadcasts during his decade playing for the Rockets. No professional league, perhaps not even any of the European soccer goliaths, has grown as much as the NBA has in China these past two decades. To say that China is important to the NBA’s 21st century business plan is to say that your liver is vital to your continuing existence. What the Houston Rockets and the NBA did in response to Morey’s decision to further the league’s commitment to social justice was effectively a scene left on the South Park cutting room floor.
Soon after Morey’s tweet, Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta issued a quick and fairly forceful rebuke.
Morey deleted his tweet, and the Chinese authorities and their proxies sprung into action. The AP noted that “a search Monday for Houston Rockets merchandise on Chinese e-commerce platform Taobao turned up zero results. Li-Ning, a major Chinese sporting goods brand, said in a statement Sunday it was suspending cooperation with the Rockets because of Morey's “mistaken remarks.” Hupu, a sports news website, has likewise suspended all coverage of the Rockets and locked the section of its website previously dedicated to the team.”
Morey tried to ameliorate the situation by essentially saying he's an idiot who knows nothing and his views do not represent his employer's.
Soon after, the NBA released a statement that attempted to bothsides the situation and quell the uprising.
We recognize that the views expressed by Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey have deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China, which is regrettable. While Daryl has made it clear that his tweet does not represent the Rockets or the NBA, the values of the league support individuals' educating themselves and sharing their views on matters important to them. 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.
Even Morey's own superstar, James Harden—whom Morey stubbornly hoarded assets for years in order to acquire, and then built a team specifically tailored to his every whim—rebuked his GM and apologized to China. As the speculation around whether this act of free speech would claim the public face of the NBA's analytics revolution, Commissioner Adam Silver quelled it a bit, as he acknowledged to everyone what was obvious:
”There is no doubt, the economic impact is already clear. There have already been fairly dramatic consequences from that tweet, and I have read some of the media suggesting that we are not supporting Daryl Morey, but in fact we have. I think as a values-based organization that I want to make it clear…that Daryl Morey is supported in terms of his ability to exercise his freedom of expression.”
Because irony is the only true rule of law in our modern era, as all this was unfolding, South Park's episode about Chinese censorship was censored from the Chinese web.
This past week has been a perfect example of how the Chinese authoritarian state is currently using the power of the growing Chinese market to influence American cultural and economic products. The NBA (temporarily) pulled an All-Star Game over one North Carolina law directed at what is estimated to be 4.5% of the U.S. population—proving that in America, the league would be willing to eschew (seemingly) capitalist principles in order to try to create a positive outcome for people who need help. Now, one fairly innocuous tweet has sent them cowering into a corner as they toss one of the founders of the beloved and influential Sloan Conference under a parade of tanks driven by the Communist Party of China who has decided that the punishment for any critique of them anywhere is global professional suicide.
Capitalism Has No Moral Center
I do not bring forth that charge as a righteous critique, but as a simple description of how it operates. Morality only has currency in a capitalist system if morality is backed by actual currency. The only thing at the center of capitalism’s incentive system is profit. Hell, a bunch of capitalists basically just said this is this case and it needs to change.
If the youth of the United States were not currently rallying to try to protect our transgender community, the NBA and many other companies would not have given themselves gigantic and costly headaches by pulling their business out of one of America’s fastest growing states for business. The emotionless logic of profit would have overruled the fundamental human rights of an estimated 37,000 people stuck under the authoritarian boot of North Carolina’s HB2 law…if the emotionless logic of profit was not based on markets defined by human emotions. Given the wealth of grassroots activism in response to the bill, companies were forced by their customers to pick a side in this fight for human rights.
In the United States, it is very clear which way the wind is blowing, and any business that wants to capture the coveted 18-49 demographic must demonstrably reject the bigoted and authoritarian worldview espoused by Fox News and the like, and voice support for a truly inclusive society for everyone. That is the lesson we learned from North Carolina’s approximate $400 million loss from HB2.
Quick Note: Please read Shane Ryan’s heartbreaking report from 2018 on the devastating effects of anti-transgender legislation on children.
In China, the Hong Kong protests are much more complicated. While the fight for transgender rights in America fits into an old-versus-new dynamic that capitalism instinctively knows how to glom onto, the Hong Kong protests do not fit as neatly into that familiar narrative. Given how effective the Chinese government is at restricting their citizens’ access to information via the Great Firewall (and the fact that many in rural areas are still disconnected from much of modernity), we really don’t know how these massive protests are being received among the Chinese population—and so under the auspices of any economic system incentivized by profit, the prudent move would be treading with caution.
But the NBA isn’t projecting uncertainty, they are actively kowtowing to the authoritarian Chinese state, while sputtering out a couple mealy-mouthed sentences about principles or something in order to maintain the capitalist façade they painted in the wake of HB2. This proves that social justice is more of a marketing principle to the NBA than an actual principle centered around the universality of human rights. A principle is not a principle if you can just disregard it whenever you want.
A recent poll revealed that only 11% of Hong Kong citizens identify as Chinese, and there really does seem to be a breaking point between the authoritarian giant and its immensely powerful and far more democratic global trade hub on its southern coast. This is a story bigger than the NBA, and frankly much larger than China—as this century has been defined by the growing power and autonomy of major cities. China can throw its authoritarian might around everywhere on the mainland, but Hong Kong is such a vital trade hub that an invasion by the Chinese army would send foreign investment fleeing out of a state with the sixth largest stock exchange and the highest concentration of banking institutions in the world, perhaps for good. This is one of the most delicate situations anywhere on Earth right now.
While the wave of companies pulling business out of North Carolina demonstrates that capitalism can buoy social justice movements if the broader profit incentives are clear and obvious, the NBA’s mixed messages in two very different, but financially vital arenas, proves that without a strong push from the public, major capital will never willingly join the right side of history. Capital will only join the right side of profit, which is why going forward, all of your favorite blockbuster movies and sports will now be filtered through the Chinese Communist Party’s authoritarian censors before we can enjoy them. If you don’t like this dystopian future dictated by our CPC cultural caretakers, too bad. This dynamic is locked in because that’s the way their government is choosing to operate with their relative power, and because “we’re capitalists and that’s just the way it is.”
So in accordance with the new rules aimed to meet the standards of our benevolent overlords, I must now end every column with an official declaration of unbridled fealty to the Communist Party of China:
All hail President Xi Jinping! We are so lucky to have found a man who has finally convinced Maverick of his misguided and ill-informed support for the Republic of China’s independence. President Xi will now protect our precious American profits and our polluted American brains from great untruths about the mighty and honorable Chinese Communist Party. All hail President Xi!
Jacob Weindling is a writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.