Sterling: Finances over freedom

As an avid basketball fan, I use the sport and its top professional league as an escape from the world around me. Shooting hoops with friends or tuning into a Blazers’ game distracts my mind from the political insanity taking place in the U.S. My safe haven has always remained as such, until now.

Controversial comments on social media fill our timelines, but few have caused as significant of a rift between world superpowers and influential organizations as the seven words tweeted by Daryl Morey of the Houston Rockets. The general manager of China’s, perhaps formerly, favorite NBA squad, showed his support for Hong Kong protesters when he posted the “Fight for Freedom Stand With Hong Kong” slogan to Twitter on Oct. 4. 

Morey and fans of the NBA quickly realized that its $4 billion business empire in China can be toppled by slight criticism of China’s government. But this was not a controversial claim by any standard, in my eyes. Morey was simply supporting protesters fighting for freedom in the form of democracy — individuals who are sacrificing everything for a better future. Considering the NBA is located in a country where freedom of speech is a cornerstone of our society, his message ought to be supported by fellow members of the NBA community. 

This is an interconnected world where one issue can relate to a million others. While Morey was by no means firing a shot at China and their relationship with the NBA, outrage was visible both abroad and in the U.S. By merely supporting people risking their lives for freedom, Morey offended key basketball figures in both China and his own league. 

While statements from commissioner Adam Silver and the NBA have supported freedom of speech when it comes to their employees’ personal views, the hesitation from executives and players alike have been alarming. 

Aside from those staying silent, key figures such as LeBron James have taken issue with Morey’s sentiment. James disliked Morey’s statements so strongly that he took it upon himself to try and pressure Silver into punishing Morey for his Twitter activity. 

James bailed on a 16th consecutive summer trip to China due to the filming of “Space Jam 2”, and his recent trip to China for the Los Angeles Lakers preseason games was supposed to serve as a substitute for his missed appearance. During the business trip, James had appearances scheduled with Nike and Beats by Dre. These endorsement deals help make James one of the highest paid athletes sports have ever seen, and canceled appearances due to international turmoil apparently did not sit right with the hundred-millionaire.

This is the most frustrating sequence from the saga, as James is widely considered to be a prominent social justice advocate. His disapproval of Morey’s tweet highlights the influence China holds over the NBA, and how money influences the personal values we project to the world. Instead of supporting the basic human right to freedom, James is valuing his own finances and protecting the business interests of the NBA. With 640 million viewers tuning into a form of NBA programming during the 2017-18 season, the size of the market in China is undeniable. 

Distracted by dollar signs, the NBA and James are making a dangerous decision by catering to China’s wants and feelings. Business is business, but James’ stance on this issue places a damaging mark on his incredible career as an advocate for social change. How this situation continues to be handled will likely alter the ways in which the NBA interacts with foreign markets. Business interests aside, supporting freedom of speech on paper while ignoring it in practice is unacceptable. The NBA and its most influential figures need to promote freedom over potential profit margins.