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Colliding With China, the N.B.A. Retreats With a Bruised Spine

I got off a plane Sunday afternoon and checked my phone and saw a statement from the N.B.A. apologizing to China for something that Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey had tweeted. What line, I wondered, had Morey transgressed? Had he slurred a player? A team?

From the perspective of the N.B.A., the answer was much worse: Morey had slurred a great pile of money.

With a single tweet, quickly deleted, Morey had expressed support for the democracy movement in Hong Kong. The Chinese government and the gilded companies that act as its shadows proclaimed their immediate outrage, fury and hurt, so much hurt. Companies canceled games, and a billion-dollar contract perhaps fell into doubt.

For the N.B.A., which has been on woke roll these past few years, it was a head-on collision with not-so-woke global politics and finances. And Commissioner Adam Silver and his marketing team crumpled into a fetal position.

“We recognize that the views expressed by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey have deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China, which is regrettable,” the N.B.A. said in a statement Sunday night. (The league’s Chinese-language apology went further, calling Morey’s message “inappropriate” and saying he had “seriously hurt the feelings of Chinese basketball fans.”)

On Monday, Silver tried to rediscover his spine, claiming the league’s statement was supportive of Morey’s speech, which was true if you held it up to a reading lamp and took the most generous interpretation possible. Silver added that he also supported the Brooklyn Nets owner Joseph Tsai, a partner in China’s wealthiest e-commerce company, who in a Facebook post claimed that “all citizens of China” opposed the Hong Kong protests and blasted Morey for a poorly informed tweet that did not take into account China’s hurt feelings over the Opium Wars of the 19th century.

For now, why don’t we leave Silver alone to sort out his thinking?

The N.B.A. faces an existential problem. For the better part of a decade, the league’s leading players and coaches have spoken out, often eloquently, on issues like police brutality, gay rights, guns and the president of the United States. They even toppled the retrograde racist owner of the Los Angeles Clippers.

The league capitalized handsomely. Its audience was young, hip and politically liberal, and the N.B.A. marketed itself as the most woke of pro leagues.

And then one of its general managers decided to tiptoe beyond the boundaries of this nation.

“The league enjoys LeBron James being a spokesman back in Akron and Cleveland and speaking out on American politics,” noted Victor A. Matheson, an economist of sports and a professor at College of the Holy Cross. “Where it messes with you is that the N.B.A. does not necessarily want its folks to be outspoken on China.”

The pro leagues, in fact, run like bloodhounds after the scent of their fan bases. The N.F.L. is the N.B.A.’s doppelgänger. Its fan base, although diverse racially, tends toward cultural and political conservatism. When the lords of the N.F.L. boycotted Colin Kaepernick for the crime of silently taking a knee during the national anthem, they could do so in the reasonable expectation that their fans would either applaud, or grumble but still buy another sausage or team jersey.

The N.B.A.’s challenges are complicated after a different fashion. To read some of its press clippings is to guess that the league is on an inevitable march to the top of the sports mountain. The conductor should toss the brakes on that train. The N.F.L. stands as the undisputed champ of the American sports, and Major League Baseball remains in comfortable, if sleepy, second place.

The N.B.A. has those brilliant demographics, but further rapid growth in the United States is not assured. The league’s genius instead was to extend its tentacles around the world, the first American sports league to lay plausible claim to becoming a global business. Its stars hail from many continents, and its television contracts extend from Europe to Tencent in China, which this year signed a five-year, $1.5 billion deal.

The N.B.A.’s challenge, its headache, comes encoded in this dynamic. Social justice marketing is grand for the hoop audience in the United States but looks far less attractive to an authoritarian power in Beijing.

“This is the vulnerability for the N.B.A.,” said Matheson, the sports economist. “Social justice and free speech does not sell well in China.”

That international businesses go supine when human rights collide with marketing opportunities is desultory but hardly surprising. Last year, Mercedes-Benz cast itself to the ground and apologized to the Chinese government for having the temerity to quote the Dalai Lama in a corporate Instagram post. (It showed one of its luxury cars by the ocean alongside this bit of Dalai wisdom: “Look at situations from all angles, and you will become more open.”)

“We know,” Mercedes wrote to China in contrition, “that this has hurt the feelings of people of this country.”

So the N.B.A. has arrived at a woke juncture. Silver on Monday suggested that in time this brouhaha would pass. Tsai, the Nets’ owner and a man who has become wonderfully wealthy thanks to his acumen and his closeness to the Chinese government, hinted that redemption might come slowly for those who flap their lips too much.

“The N.B.A. is a fan-first league,” Tsai wrote. “When hundreds of millions of fans are furious over an issue, the league, and anyone associated with the N.B.A., will have to pay attention.”

The sight this weekend was of N.B.A. owners nodding eagerly. Woke finances after all take one but so far.

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