The NBA had prided itself in part by being one of, if not thee most outspoken professional sports league on politics and social justice. But that trend seemed to come to a grand closing this week as the fallout continues from a franchise executive’s tweet in support of Chinese citizens protesting for civil rights in the capital city of Hong Kong. Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey’s tweet prompted the Chinese government to rebuke the NBA and steps were taken to seemingly sever ties with the basketball association.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver moved quickly to mend fences and maintain the lucrative relationship the league has had with the Communist country. In doing so, Silver also defended Morey’s freedom of speech, something most Chinese citizens do not nearly enjoy to the extent that Americans do.
But then something strange happened: The NBA decided to keep holding some of their preseason games in China despite the backlash against the Chinese government. The optics surrounding the situation seemed to indicate that as long as the NBA was getting paid — and they are getting paid from these games in China — that was the only thing that mattered to the same league that has supported social justice initiatives but was now turning a blind eye to societal ills in a foreign country where they were playing.
The NBA game between LeBron James’ Los Angeles Lakers and Kyrie Irving’s Brooklyn Nets went on as scheduled Thursday despite the controversy. That led a handful of people on social media to suggest that Fox News host Laura Ingraham’s racist attack on James last year when she told him to “shut up and dribble” actually had any merit in this particular instance.
That sentiment was lent even more credence when a CNN reporter asked NBA superstar James Harden his thoughts on the matter during a Q&A session with the media. The reporter was quickly admonished for her line of questioning not being related to basketball (even though it was relevant) and Harden, sitting next to former MVP Russell Westbrook, remained silent — or, “shut up” — as if they were coached against saying anything.
The entire incident seems to have the entire NBA community shaken to the core. And while Silver has insisted the NBA doesn’t try to muffle anyone’s opinions, Golden State Warriors Coach Steve Kerr — who is always outspoken on controversial topics (remember when he famously rebuffed Trump’s White House invitation?) — coincidentally also declined to comment Tuesday morning about the ongoing fray in China.
To refresh everyone’s memories, LeBron had some choice words for the president last year and said Trump “really doesn’t give a fuck about the people.” That phrasing got directly beneath the melanin-challenged skin of Ingraham — one of Trump’s most loyal (and hateful) Fox News soldiers — who responded in kind by flippantly telling James to stay out of politics and “shut up and dribble.”
Fast forward about 18 months later and now China is effectively telling the NBA to stay out of ts politics and to “shut up and dribble” during the preseason games played across the country.
China has enjoyed a special place within the NBA’s international family, including producing multiple players who were drafted into the league such as Yao Ming. NBA teams regularly host games that play on Chinese Heritage Night and celebrate Chinese New Year.
But such gestures surely do not come for cheap, and the NBA is almost certainly earning a pretty penny by promoting those games and fostering its relationship with China. And vice verse, to be sure. By basically complying with China’s demands (not wishes), it would seem as though the NBA has indeed agreed to “shut up and dribble” during any games it plays in China.
That was a common sentiment on Twitter on Thursday. Scroll down to see some of the more animated tweets in response.