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Opinion & Editorial

When Diplomacy and Sports Collide: Awkward Relations between the NBA and China

Daryl Morey’s support for Hong Kong has put the NBA at unfortunate odds with China. (Wikimedia Commons)

Little did the average American citizen know in 1971 that after two decades of containment, all it would take for the United States and China to break the ice would be a ping-pong match.

For all of the 1950’s and 60’s, the Cold War had strained relations between the two super-powers. Within the states, there was widespread hatred towards the “aggressor” nation over 7,000 miles away, but the 1971 World Table Tennis Championships in Nagoya, Japan, provided an opportunity for the two countries to shift towards cordial relations.

And that’s exactly what happened. 

American Glenn Cowan and China’s representative, Zhuang Zedong, broke 21 years of silence between the two nations through an exchange of gifts, and in a whirlwind of events-the People’s Republic of China had suddenly extended an invitation for President Nixon to visit.

This was a turning point for both nations who longed for a return to normality, and all it took was a 2.7-gram ball. 

Now, 47 years later, another barrier stands between these two governments. 

Relations between the White House and the People’s Republic are worsening day by day, and over the past three weeks, the National Basketball Association has somehow found itself involved in a storm they wanted no part of.

On October 4, Houston Rockets GM, Daryl Morey, tweeted “Fight For Freedom. Stand With Hong Kong.” 

Without realizing the long-term consequences of his words, Morey set the stage for a complicated and uncertain future between basketball and the world’s most populous country.

The tweet ignited utter outrage among Chinese sponsors and the Chinese Basketball Association, and there was no hesitancy by these entities in displaying their disapproval.

To start, the government suspended preseason NBA broadcasts and canceled planned community events with the visiting Brooklyn Nets.

The Chinese Basketball Association then came out on the defensive, halting relations with the Houston Rockets, and the rest of the nation seems to have followed suit: many Chinese celebrities are advocating for a boycott of the Association, and countless brands ended sponsorships for the preseason games.

This breaking of bonds with China is economically frightening for a league who signed a $1.5 billion deal with the Chinese network, Tencent, just last year. Furthermore, the total number of Chinese viewers for the 2018-2019 season far outweighed the number from the states. Needless to say, China has a commanding influence within the multi-billion dollar organization. 

NBA Commissioner, Adam Silver, has played the unsurprising role of the middle-man throughout this firestorm, calling it “regrettable” that the tweet offended many of the fans in China, while at the same time defending Morey’s right to free speech (and rightfully so). 

Silver, who has long been known as a progressive thinker, doesn’t quite know where the future is headed. At the recent Time 100 Health Summit, Silver stated that the losses for the league have “already been substantial,” and that he’s “not even sure where we’ll go from here.”

It’s hard to blame the 57-year-old commissioner for not having a clear vision of what’s to come. The association is largely dependent on revenue coming from the country led by Xi Jinping, and at the moment, Silver faces pressure from the White House to end its connections with China, and also, an increasing number of players and commentators are siding with Morey and Hong Kong.

Not knowing what will happen next is a scary thought for Silver and the NBA brand as a whole, and at the moment, the regular season games continue to be blacked out.

There is no clear solution or response to bridging the gap among Morey and China, the NBA and 500 million fans. Silver is still optimistic that basketball can be used as a tool for uniting our two nations. 

The fact remains that the authoritarian government thousands of miles away continues to oppress and imprison millions of citizens, and from every current perspective, it looks like this sport is only serving to divide our two nations further apart.



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