NBA, China spat shows sports isn’t (and shouldn’t be) just about games

Expressing a desire to stick to sports is, itself, a political act.

A Chinese fan holds Chinese national flags as he cheers with other fans during a preseason game.
A Chinese fan holds Chinese national flags as he cheers with other fans during a preseason game. –AP Photo

The myth of sports sticking to sports died this week, from self-inflicted wounds and a global outbreak of compromised values.

In the end, it never had a chance — even though some fans have trouble letting go of the idea.

Memorial services were held at an NBA news conference where a reporter asked a timely question of two stars from the Houston Rockets.

“The NBA has always been a league that prides itself on its players and coaches being able to speak out openly about political and societal affairs,” the reporter said. “I just wonder if after the events of this week, and the fallout we’ve seen, whether you both would feel differently about speaking out in that way in the future?”


A team representative chimed in immediately, saying they were accepting “basketball questions only.”

Irony died on the spot. (The league later apologized.)

Just days before, the two players, James Harden and Russell Westbrook, stood in front of reporters as Harden said “We love China” and apologized after the team’s general manager, in a post on Twitter, expressed support for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters.

This time, Harden and Westbrook looked down blankly from the dais, as if someone had unplugged them.

Confused? You must be new to the sports world.

The fragility of the NBA’s courtship with China — like many fraught relationships, built on desire, mostly of money — has been exposed. Suddenly the NBA has gone as tongue-tied as middle-schoolers at their first dance.

It is a global story, complicated by philosophical notions like “morals,” “rights” and “courage,” and other things that can’t be neatly calculated on a scoreboard.

But it is not a rare story. It is just another week in sports.

The flap highlights the collisions that regularly occur at the busy intersection of sports and politics, where no one has figured out a reliable system of traffic lights. (And forget four-way stops — let’s take turns! — because no one truly understands four-way stops.)


There have been plenty of other wrecks at this spot, just in the past week or two, reminding fans why sports is such rubbernecking fun.

The state of California crashed into the NCAA’s controlled view of college amateurism, threatening to upend the model entirely.

Rihanna confirmed that she turned down a Super Bowl halftime spot in the name of Colin Kaepernick, telling Vogue: “I just couldn’t be a sellout. I couldn’t be an enabler.”

The Atlanta Braves canceled plans to give out red foam “tomahawks” for a playoff game after St. Louis pitcher Ryan Helsley, a member of Cherokee Nation, criticized the related gesture and chant.

In Doha, Qatar, the safety of marathoners running in the heat (even at midnight) was a subplot to a broader geopolitical question over how and why Doha held the world track and field championships, and how and why it was awarded the 2022 World Cup.

Similarly, the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo threaten to become a storyline of deadly heat, pitting television ratings against safety, with a sidebar on climate change. Prepare to sweat and stick to everything but sports there.

Oh, and look over there this week: Iran let women attend a national soccer game for the first time since 1981. (Other matches? Not so fast.)

The mess of the moment involving the NBA stretches from Washington to Beijing, with stops including Hong Kong and New York. That is how you get the president insulting Steve Kerr and Gregg Popovich, two top basketball coaches often critical of Trump, during a discussion of trade policies amid an impeachment inquiry.


All of those examples are not sports stories soiled by politics or other distracting themes. Those are real issues with a sports angle.

That is not new. Americans have never really stuck to sports. The timeline of American history is dotted with revolutions in sports that speak to culture and politics, from racial integration to worker rights, war protests to civil rights. Sports have a history of bringing troubling aspects of our culture into the conversation. Sometimes it starts on the playing field and expands; sometimes it bleeds into sports from other areas of society.

Which is just what happened this week. Most Americans probably have no idea who Daryl Morey is. His pro-democracy tweet — “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong” — was innocuous by the standards of Twitter.

But Morey is general manager of the Houston Rockets. The league is deeply invested in China, and the Rockets are one of the most popular teams there.

Things went haywire. Chinese officials expressed outrage. Chinese companies suspended partnerships with the NBA. State-run television pulled coverage of two preseason games in China between the Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets.

The NBA, usually more progressive than any major sports league, was caught flat-footed on defense, tangled up by all the crossover dribbles and cross-culture passes. The league initial’s response, expressing regret and hope “that sports and the NBA can be used as a unifying force to bridge cultural divides,” offended many in China. The commissioner, traveling in Asia, gave his support of free speech. The effect was as unfulfilling as a Game 7 being declared a tie.

Conscience wrestled capitalism. In the United States, fans showing support for Hong Kong protesters were escorted from NBA games. In China, the first game went on (the second is scheduled for Saturday), but pregame and postgame interview sessions were canceled.

Beijing sent the NBA into a corner to think about what it did. “We have decided not to hold media availability for our teams for the remainder of our trip in China,” the NBA announced in a statement Friday. “They have been placed into a complicated and unprecedented situation while abroad and we believe it would be unfair to ask them to address these matters in real time.”

The result: No one is speaking meaningfully about the issue. Sticking to sports appears to be the best way to appease the Chinese.

That might be the most damning thing to say about keeping the conversation to sports: China is all for it. An editorial for the English-language South China Morning Post came with the headline, “Sport loses out when politics enters play.” The newspaper is owned by Alibaba Group, the Chinese e-commerce giant led by Joe Tsai, the billionaire owner of the Brooklyn Nets.

Expressing a desire to stick to sports is, itself, a political act.

It carries a bit of disingenuousness, an unwillingness to see the issues beyond the scoreboard. It is a silent declaration, like the one Harden and Westbrook made by declining to talk anymore about China, or the one that ESPN reportedly made this week, instructing its on-air talent to avoid the sticky, non-basketball parts of the topic. (You will never guess who has broadcast rights to the NBA worth billions of dollars.)

The drama of sports depends on cultural context — otherwise the Miracle on Ice would be just another game. And the NBA is hardly alone in the sports world with its debatable dalliances in places like China, where morals, rights and courage are viewed from much different prisms.

The International Olympic Committee, persistently presenting itself as a global do-gooder, handed Beijing the 2022 Winter Olympics, 14 years after the city hosted the Summer Games.

International sports federations routinely stage championships in China, hoping to mine the market while whistling past the open shafts of differing values. FIBA, basketball’s governing body, held its world championships in Beijing last month. Just this week, as all this was going on with the NBA, the men’s and women’s tennis tours held top-level events in China.

Somehow, unlike the NBA, others have quietly avoided being entangled in geopolitics. But mixing sports and politics is not something that has to be said to make it exist.

It is always there. Sometimes it takes a tweet to remind us.