One of the toughest challenges NBA commissioner Adam Silver has faced during his administration? Dealing with the country of China. China is a big partner for the NBA, with many NBA players having shoe deals in the country and the league having a significant TV presence there.
Last year, however, ruffles were feathered due to some online commentary about an issue close to China. Silver defended the NBA’s approach to China recently.
The pros and cons of the NBA’s relationship with China
The pros of the NBA’s relationship with China is rather simple: money. The NBA is immensely popular in China, and extending into that market exposes the game and its brand to billions of potential customers.
The NBA’s global popularity, which has generally skyrocketed since the 1992 Summer Olympics when the Dream Team wowed the world, is especially prevalent in China.
The cons are that the NBA positions itself as a socially-conscious league. How can it claim to support social justice domestically when it looks the other way on potential violations abroad?
When Daryl Morey took to Twitter to show support for protesters in Hong Kong, the reaction from China was swift and brutal. According to Vox, the Chinese Basketball Association severed all relations with the Houston Rockets (Morey’s team at the time).
The Chinese consulate in Houston rebuked the GM. The NBA essentially backed China’s party line, forcing Morey to apologize and calling his statement “regrettable.”
LeBron James harshly criticized Morey for the timing of his statement, despite the fact that James is outspoken himself on a litany of social justice issues.
China’s a country with issues related to censorship and human rights violations. The NBA hasn’t criticized them, and even criticized one of their brethren for his own perceived criticism. That creates a perception of hypocrisy, no matter which way you view it.
Adam Silver’s thoughts on the NBA’s reach in China
In an interview with GQ, Silver was asked about reconciling the NBA’s openness to American social justice while maintaining a relationship with China. Silver was pragmatic in his response, focusing on the potential benefits of the NBA as a purveyor of American ideals:
“And through the relationships that we have in China—directly with the hundreds of millions of people in China that follow NBA basketball—we are an exporter of American values….
…But I guess that people could say, “Well, it’s inconsistent with our values.” And I’d say, “Do you make decisions based on one issue?” I still believe that by engaging with people in China, by exporting what is a piece of Americana through the NBA, that we are supporting our fundamental values and that the alternative of not doing it would not improve things.”
Silver’s comments suggest the hope that by establishing this relationship with China, the NBA can help expose their citizens to a different perspective.
That said, it still does little to curb current practices from the Chinese government that may not align with the NBA’s stance on many social issues.
How current and former NBA players are profiting off a relationship with China
Plenty of NBA players also find a way to extend or enrich their basketball careers, even after their NBA playing days are at an end. Jeremy Lin played in the Chinese Basketball Association, seeing his career experience a renaissance after he drew limited interest from NBA teams.
Stephon Marbury extended his career by several years playing in China, becoming very popular there, and experiencing great success. Current superstar James Harden even expressed his support for China following the Morey kerfuffle.
It’s a complex, nuanced issue that isn’t likely to be solved any time soon. The bottom line is that while the NBA will continue to try to passively influence China by being the “exporter of American values” Silver claims they are, that means they’ll need to look the other way on other issues in the interim.