Previously unknown outside of NBA circles, the analytics-minded general manager of the Houston Rockets Daryl Morey became famous within minutes of tweeting out light support of the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests on October 4. A country historically hostile to criticism, China responded swiftly with a suite of penalties and economic sanctions designed to send a message to the NBA. Before the day was over, the Rockets had been blacklisted by China’s digital rights holder, NBA care events were cancelled, and the government had formally demanded an apology. Leveraging a market of nearly 1.4 billion people and a lucrative TV deal, the PRC’s bellicose demands were quickly met by an acquiescent league office intent on restoring normalcy. Although Morey retained his job, players either apologized or stayed silent at press conferences and the NBA released a statement that described the situation as “regrettable.” Long hailed as the most forward-thinking professional sports league in the United States, the aftermath of the incident suggests that the NBA’s progressivism stops at the water’s edge -— beyond which more and more of the league’s revenue is coming.
At the center of the Association’s stand-off is its beloved boss Adam Silver. Adored by fans and respected by players, the attorney-turned-commissioner was once praised by former University of Chicago Law School Dean Michael Schill as “harken[ing] back to the age when lawyers did things beyond law.” Tasked with leading the fourth largest professional sports league in the world, Silver is now being asked to deal with issues beyond the scope of basketball.
It is a role that Silver has previously excelled at. In April 2014, only two months after taking the helm as NBA commissioner, Silver deftly handled the leak of racist comments by Los Angeles Clippers Owner Donald Sterling. In a dramatic press conference, the normally mild-mannered New Yorker explicitly denounced Sterling and leveled one of the most severe punishments in the history of professional sports: a lifetime ban and a 2.5 million dollar fine. Since Silver’s initial trial by fire, he has only further cemented his reputation as a thoughtful, progressive administrator through his championing of the Basketball Africa League (BAL) and his seemingly unqualified protection of players’ free speech. Silver has even come to the defense of the Association’s vocal critics of the Trump Administration, reiterating last May that the NBA was “proud of the fact our players demonstrate to people globally that they are multi-dimensional.”
Observers on both sides of the aisle have since revelled in the opportunity to expose Silver’s apparent hypocrisy. A previously unimaginable coalition including actors as ideologically disparate as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ted Cruz, Andrew Yang (‘96), and Dave Portnoy has emerged as a united front against a league seen as allying itself with authoritarianism. However, excluding a semantic disagreement over whether the NBA’s statement constituted an apology, Silver has refused to back down despite near universal condemnation: “I hear some people saying that we should disengage from China, and I respectfully disagree… my personal belief is that isolationism doesn’t make sense in this highly interconnected world.”
Silver’s talking points since the onset of the controversy have largely revolved around the inevitability of its eventual resolution. With nearly 500 million viewers in China and an NBA China division worth 4 billion dollars, the Association bowing to the PRC was effectively a fait accompli: there was simply too much of a financial stake for the NBA to test the Chinese government. As this defense continues to take a beating in the court of public opinion, however, Silver may be tempted to pivot towards a different argument.
When discussing the Association’s efforts at global expansion, Silver has often either implicitly or explicitly implied that the NBA has the potential to help instill certain American values in the countries it reaches. In one of his most recent statements, Silver asserted that “this league for decades has been on the ground in China, spreading the game, teaching the values of this game, and, again, I think those are core American values…” This echoed comments he made only a few days earlier, including the claim that “as an American-based basketball league operating globally, among our greatest contributions are these values of … [equality, respect and freedom of expression.]”
This belief in a sort of basketball diplomacy is not without merit: Different studies have found that pick-up basketball can help promote democracy and that the presence of organized sports encourages liberal values. These findings have led scholars such as Dartmouth Professor Paul Christesen to suggest that “sport… shows every sign of being a school for democracy.” The argument could be made, therefore, that the NBA should actually be most active in authoritarian countries like China. Not only would this line of reasoning seemingly allow Silver to reclaim the moral high ground, it would also allow him to dismiss the convenient economic ramifications as only the auxiliary benefits of a principled policy.
While perhaps discomforting, Silver’s previous admission that the Association was acting in its own economic interest was, at least, refreshing in its honesty. This new line of justification that the NBA appears to be flirting with, however, is dangerously familiar: Silver’s reasoning mirrors decades of American foreign policy. Since the Banana Wars of the early 1900s, American history has been rife with examples of ostensibly altruistic public and private operations that proved to be motivated almost solely by access to markets.
Just as events like the invasion of Iraq are now panned as using the guise of patriotism to protect economic interests, the NBA’s efforts to market global expansion as democracy promotion should be roundly rejected as an illegitimate appeal to emotion. The NBA’s updated rationale leans so heavily on pathos that it neglects logos to the point of paradox by suggesting that the loss of domestic civil liberties is a necessary casualty of their development abroad. Even if one can look past this inconsistency, the way the controversy has played out may serve as an indication that the theories related to basketball and democracy fail to bear out in reality: as astutely noted by one observer, “the fact that one tweet from a general manager nearly caused an international catastrophe shows that there are limits to the sport’s perceived power.” Thus, while the idea of the NBA as a factory of democracy is intuitively attractive, it more importantly lacks coherence, intellectual rigor, or clear evidence in this case. Furthermore, its acceptance would set a dangerous precedent for a league already eager to expand its reach as far across the globe as possible.
Commissioner Silver is in an unenviable position: Forced to navigate the two largest economies in the world, he is indeed trapped between a rock and a hard place. However, to continue arguing that the NBA is an irreplaceable merchant of American values is irresponsible. Not only is it reminiscent of previous bad faith interventions, but moreover it relies on irrational logic and conjecture about the impact of sport on democratic values. In a situation so complex, there is perhaps no unambiguously right action: Hopefully Silver can just avoid making the wrong ones.
Photo: Image via the Mayo Clinic (Flickr)