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“Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.” That tweet by the Houston Rockets’ general manager put the National Basketball Association in the middle of a global values clash.
China’s response was fast and furious: Rockets merchandise was pulled from online and mainland stores. TV broadcasts of the Rockets were banned – as were two NBA preseason games scheduled to be played in China this week.
To China, the tweet is an affront to national sovereignty. And the world’s second biggest economy brooks no dissent. U.S. companies are regularly punished for crossing such red lines.
But basketball is big in China (worth an estimated $4 billion). Initially, the NBA’s response to China’s rebuke was tepid. Yes, the NBA’s brand is one of liberal activism. Unlike the NFL, NBA stars openly support Black Lives Matter. An LGBTQ bathroom bill prompted the league to move the 2017 All-Star Game out of North Carolina. That’s why the “most woke sports league” drew sharp criticism – from the left and right – for not challenging Chinese censorship.
On Tuesday, the NBA came down on the side of democratic values. “This is about far more than growing our business. Values of equality, respect and freedom of expression have long defined the NBA – and will continue to do so,” Commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement.
The NBA can afford to take this stand. It’s a monopoly of the best: LeBron James only plays in the NBA. The league is playing long ball, banking on China’s love for the game to ultimately win out.
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