The NBA thinks it can ignore politics in China. It’s wrong

Call it Noxious By Association (NBA).

On Friday, Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey tweeted, and then quickly deleted, an image with text reading, “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong,” in reference to the months-long protests convulsing that city. Almost immediately, the Chinese Basketball Association suspended its cooperation with the Rockets. Chinese sponsors fled, and Joseph Tsai, the Chinese owner of the NBA team the Brooklyn Nets, claimed that “the hurt that this incident has caused will take a long time to repair.”

The NBA thinks it can ignore politics in China. “We got a huge backlash, and I wanted to make clear that the organization has no political position,” Houston Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta told ESPN. “We’re here to play basketball and not to offend anybody”; late Friday, Fertitta tweeted, in part, “we are NOT a political organization.”


What Fertitta and his fellow team owners fail to understand, or choose to ignore, is that in today’s China, the NBA is a political organization. To succeed in China as the NBA has, it has needed to align itself with the Chinese Communist Party. The NBA partners with the Ministry of Education. It maintains a training camp in the northwest Chinese region of Xinjiang, where upwards of a million Muslims are in concentration camps — because the Party wants to develop the region and to normalize its atrocities. For the NBA to post that it was “extremely disappointed in the inappropriate comment” from the Houston Rockets general manager, and, echoing Party-speak, claim that the deleted tweet “undoubtedly seriously hurt the feelings of Chinese basketball fans,” is an intensely political move. And, like Chinese party organizations, the NBA even delivered a different message in English and Chinese. The NBA’s comments in English — “the values of the league support individuals’ educating themselves and sharing their views on matters important to them” — were far milder.