Freedom of speech has its consequences for NBA

Statues of NBA players Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors, left, and Lebron James of the Los Angeles Lakers hold Chinese flags in the entrance of an NBA merchandise store in Beijing, Tuesday. Photo: AP/Mark Schiefelbein

If the NBA really wanted to make a statement, it should have never issued a statement, much less two.

No need to complicate things when two team owners had already genuflected to the irate citizens of China. Or when James Harden took it upon himself to apologize to an entire nation.

The simple path for the NBA was to do what the creators of the show "South Park" did this week after finding themselves caught between an authoritarian regime that tolerates no dissent and the pile of cash that doing business in China can bring.

Admit what is really important.

"Like the NBA, we welcome the Chinese censors into our homes and into our hearts," Trey Parker and Matt Stone said in a statement of their own. "We too love money more than freedom and democracy."

The "South Park" creators, of course, make their millions by being funny. And there's a lot to chuckle about in a post that, among other things, declares that the leader of China doesn't really look like Winnie the Pooh after all.

There's nothing funny about this for the NBA.

A league that has painstakingly built a reputation for social awareness for the briefest of moments looked no different than any other corporation chasing money in China. A league that embraces personal freedom seemed unable to understand that freedom means something very different in China.

All this while LeBron James and company were speeding their way toward Shanghai and an exhibition game reception that figures to be very different than they were expecting.

If Commissioner Adam Silver's tortured response to the crisis facing the league is any indication, even LeBron will have a hard time explaining his way out of this one.

Silver's first statement expressed regret that the Friday night tweet by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey supporting protesters in Hong Kong had offended the league's friends and fans in China. That not only didn't mollify China — which offered a more nationalistic translation for the audience at home — but was attacked on social media as failing to stand up for the right of free speech.

Silver tried again and pretty much got it right. But that meant further antagonizing a country where the NBA has a big investment and is making even bigger profits.

"It is inevitable that people around the world — including from America and China — will have different viewpoints over different issues. It is not the role of the NBA to adjudicate those differences," Silver said. "However, the NBA will not put itself in a position of regulating what players, employees and team owners say or will not say on these issues. We simply could not operate that way."

Give Silver credit for standing up for free speech, albeit a bit late. The commissioner quickly realized how off-tone his first response was and did his best to at least make it sound better.

Unfortunately for the NBA, though, it's in a lose-lose situation in a country that seems to be aching for a fight.

Workers at a Shanghai gym were seen in a video painting over the Houston Rockets logo, and the team's merchandise has disappeared from stores. State broadcaster CCTV cancelled its planned airing of two games between the Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets in China, while the streaming service Tencent — which recently signed a five-year, $1.5 billion deal for NBA rights — said it would not show Rockets games.

Deals that individual players like James have in China could be in jeopardy, too. And any dream of the NBA one day introducing the Beijing Pandas as its newest expansion team will remain a dream.

All because of a tweet supporting protesters in Hong Kong, who want nothing more than the same personal liberties that every NBA player and employee enjoy. A tweet that may soon end Morey's employment much the way kneeling during the national anthem ended Colin Kaepernick's time in the NFL.

Freedom of speech does have its consequences. There's a price paid for speaking out, as Kaepernick found out and as Muhammad Ali did a half century before him.

But the price paid for backing down on values of a league that has led the way on social issues would be even worse. That's why it was critical that while Silver said Tuesday in Tokyo that he was sympathetic to the outrage, the league will stick by its principles of free speech.

Yes, there's a chance the Chinese money may be gone. The exposure carefully cultivated over three decades, too.

But Silver had to take a stand for a right held dear by most Americans. He had no other alternative if he and the league wanted to keep their credibility and self-respect.

At least no alternative as funny as that suggested by South Park's creators after the show seemed to vanish in the Chinese media following an episode in which Pooh and Piglet are jailed in China and mistreated after memes comparing Chinese leader Xi Jinping to Pooh circulated online.

"Long live the Great Communist Party of China!" the show's creators tweeted. "May this autumn's sorghum harvest be bountiful! We good now China?"

Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press.

© Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

©2019 GPlusMedia Inc.

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If China is going to continue bullying companies that criticize it then we need to support more sanctions and trade wars against it. Bullies only wake up when they have a bloody nose.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

There is an easy solution.

Let Hong Kong residents decide what form of govt they want and let them directly elect their representatives.

Actually, why can't mainland Chinese have the same setup? I bet if that happened, Taiwan would be much more willing to merge back into China, politically.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

Xi has sped up the timetable for abolishing the rights of Hong Kong. His greed is hurting the Chinese economy overall.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

China is risking its international goodwill in its trade war battle if it continues to tie their money to your comments/beliefs.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

The problem is not "free speech" but when free speech is used selectively. The problem is when free speech is used to condemn some nations while other nations doing the same are supported by the "free speakers"; it then becomes racist or discrimination, hypocrisy, double standard.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

The right of free speech and freedom of expression is engrained in America and other European countries which just be protected even with the loss of dollars.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

The NBA and players like LeBron James and Dwayne Wade supported the 'anti police brutality' Black Lives Matter movement.

The NBA pulled the All-Star Game from Charlotte in order to force withdrawal of the "bathroom bill" in support of transgender people. (the bill's creators claimed it was designed to protect little girls from men masquerading as women)

Let's see if the NBA and these socially conscious players will put thier money where their mouths are and boycott China to thier own hurt in order to protest police brutality in HK

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

Freedom of speech is essential to a democracy. Those who attack the principle of free speech, and of a free press, are attacking the very idea of democracy.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

Let Hong Kong residents decide what form of govt they want and let them directly elect their representatives.

I’ve only recently read up on this, but Hong Kong residents already can directly elect their own representatives. Only a section of their legislature and its candidates represent certain industries and are controlled by the Hong Kong tycoons who want the business with China. It’s more about money / capitalism than democracy. The sad thing is the local peaceful protesters don’t really know what they’re fighting for.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

Freedom of speech is essential to a democracy. Those who attack the principle of free speech, and of a free press, are attacking the very idea of democracy.

This isn’t the issue. It’s the consequences of what you say. You can say whatever you want and just stand by what you say and take the consequences.

Free speech allows people to say the following:

*Conquering the world, one well-dressed fat lady at a time.

*Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!

*Lara Logan had to outdo Anderson. Where was her buddy McCrystal.

*Japan is really advanced. They don't go to the beach. The beach comes to them.

I find it ironic that Detroit is known as the #motorcity and yet no one here knows how to fcking drive.

*I completely and wholeheartedly support Todd Reynolds and his support for the traditional and TRUE meaning of marriage.

Each of these “innocuous” social media got someone fired. But not before it got them the five minutes of internet fame for their “free speech.”

2 ( +2 / -0 )

These spineless clowns caved to the Chinese dictators, which of course only means these take a whole arm when offered a finger.

Of course, they only follow in the footsteps of California big tech like Google and Apple, who have been brown-nosing the CPC for the longest time. While ranting against Trumps so-called trade-war with the Chinese Communist Party.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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