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China and the NBA: Lebron enters the fold

by Dean Bertoia October 29, 2019
China and the NBA: Lebron enters the fold

In light of the events leading to a frigid disconnect between the NBA and its connections with China, Lebron James was once again the one left to speak up for the players.

James publicly reprimanded the timing of Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey, who on Oct. 4, tweeted “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong.” The problem with Morey’s tweet is not that he was supporting freedom for a foreign country under a communist government, but rather that he did so while two teams, the Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Lakers, were in the thick of that very regime in China; where they were to play two exhibition games.

Ever since James spoke publicly about Morey’s terrible timing, he’s been under fire for being a supporter of censorship. People are saying his comments are financially motivated, as he doesn’t want to lose all the endorsement money that Nike makes him in China. Fox News paints him as “unamerican” in his position against Morey, who is simply speaking freely, and supporting freedom, as Americans do. HURRAH. This is so typical in more ways than one… Leave it to the USA to impose their constitution on countries halfway across the world, and to dumb down the issue at hand, using ideology as an excuse.

Let’s take a step back and look at this in a rational, practical way.

James doesn’t hate free speech – all of his actions say otherwise. The man founded and funded a public elementary school in his home town of Akron, Ohio, and promises free college tuition to every graduate. He is constantly a voice for the disenfranchised, a philanthropist to those in need, and is openly liberal. What James hates is loose-lipped executives sitting in their ivory towers far, far away, who stir the pot while he’s sitting in it. Despite the tweet only existing for several minutes before being deleted, it sparked a controversy in a country with a population of over 1.3 billion people.

The controversy caused outrage, and hostility. Lebron and his team, as well as the Nets, were simply there to play basketball, and grow the game on an international level. All of a sudden, they’re on the front lines of an international conflict and media storm, where they could have potentially been in political, or even physical danger. What if the Chinese government wouldn’t let them leave? What if Chinese loyalists became violent?

Now, thankfully, those things didn’t happen, but they very well could have. Instead, they experienced a different kind of backlash: The wrath of corporate China. The Chinese broadcast of the two games on their network, CCTV, was cancelled. Tickets became hard to come by.  All corporate logos were taken off the hardwood. Community events involving the players were cancelled. Chinese apparel brands suspended their relations with the NBA. The Chinese Basketball Association, run by Rockets legend Yao Ming, severed all ties with the Rockets. Chinese streaming service Tencent banned Houston from their service. The team’s official apparel is no longer available in China. China has basically censored the hell out of the NBA.

Like many NBA superstars, Lebron James has been visiting China in the offseason for over 10 years on behalf of Nike, who carries his signature shoe and apparel lines. Of course it benefits him financially, why shouldn’t it? Would you spend weeks in China doing promotion for free? I didn’t think so. I assure you the league doesn’t mind either, because it popularizes their sport in a massive market.

More important than money, James is the most impactful ambassador for the sport since Michael Jordan made the NBA an international phenomenon. He cares more about the state of the game than he does his bank account, which is doing fine, I promise. The complete destruction of all the inroads the NBA has built into China is more likely what doesn’t sit well with him. All that time spent globalizing the game, and instilling its values in parts of the world that need them, evaporated in a moment’s notice with a seven word tweet.

But wait, here’s the cherry on top: In an attempt to either limit the damage, or save face with China, the NBA has censored the game in their own way. Fans holding up “Free Tokyo” signs in Philadelphia and Washington have had their posters taken from them by stadium officials. Reporters have been silenced in asking questions about the controversy in Houston. Hypocrisy at its best, right? How is James the one being criticized for being an advocate of conciliatory speech, when the league is clearly guilty of that very thing?

This is why sports and politics should never intersect. Sports bring people together, politics have a tendency to be divisive. James wants Morey to let the game speak for itself, and so do I.


Graphic by Salomé Blain

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