On Oct. 4, General Manager of the NBA’s Houston Rockets Daryl Morey tweeted an image supporting protests in Hong Kong that have been publicly demonstrating in opposition to Chinese government policy.
Morey’s statement was met with a strong rebuke from China, with the Chinese Basketball Association Ñ which former Rockets star Yao Ming serves as President of Ñ announcing it would respond by cutting ties with the Houston team.
The owner of the Houston Rockets, Tilman Fertitta, announced that the organization did not stand by Morey’s tweet, which Morey deleted and apologized for.
The NBA and Commissioner Adam Silver have been cautious in their comments, saying they support a member of the league’s right to state their opinions, while also expressing regret that the tweet caused a backlash from China.
Meanwhile, China has continued to express its anger at the NBA, as state broadcaster CCTV has announced a suspension of preseason NBA broadcasts.
The NBA’s reluctance to make a stand against China is in contradiction with how Silver has tried to portray the NBA as a progressive sports league. Back in 2016, the NBA cancelled plans to hold its annual All-Star game in Charlotte in protest of North Carolina’s discriminatory anti-trans bathroom law.
It’s concerning to see how China holds the influence to silence international discussion of Hong Kong and the government’s human rights abuses. But the controversy also reveals how problematic it is for professional sports to claim to celebrate social activism, but only commit when such stances are convenient.
The issue goes beyond the NBA. Last year, Nike famously made Colin Kaepernick the face of their marketing campaign based around the slogan, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”
In June, Nike pulled products from China made by a fashion designer who supported the Hong Kong protests, and this week pulled Houston Rockets products from its webstore in China.
While figures like Kaepernick should be role models for their willingness to express their beliefs, it’s apparent that for Nike, the marketing campaign was a cynical means of associating its brand with social activism.
CBS News reported that in the aftermath of the campaign starring Kaepernick, Nike saw its stock climb 36%, worth $6 billion to the company. Nike used ideals to add to its fortune without actually holding any of them.
While Kaepernick was blacklisted from the NFL for his displays of protest, the NBA has allowed its players to air their beliefs in public without issue, from discussing police brutality to criticizing Donald Trump.
But unlike the current situation with China, these past statements came with relatively little controversy for the NBA and essentially no cost to the league’s bottom line.
Like Nike, the NBA has essentially sought to cater a positive public perception for its players’ activism. If the league bends to the current pressure from China, it will be even more apparent that their toleration of that activism only went as far as it remained profitable.
Pro sports provides its stars with a significant platform that they should continue to use for good. But the world of pro sports cannot continue to use these efforts to promote themselves if they are not also willing to weather the consequences when there is backlash, regardless of where it comes from.