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Column: The NBA put money first and what’s right second in China controversy

China flag and NBA logo
The NBA’s comfortable relationship with the Chinese government was a problem even before Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey’s tweet.
(Getty Images)

This week marks the 50th anniversary of Curt Flood’s decision not to accept a trade from St. Louis to Philadelphia and instead challenge baseball’s “reserve clause” in court.

Prior to Flood’s move, players were bound to a single team with the only recourse being his original team releases him or he retires. Simply put, Flood is the godfather of free agency and while his courage led to significant changes for professional athletes, Flood essentially lost his career in the process. Such is the way for the athlete who dares to bite the hand that rations.

Whether it’s Flood, Muhammad Ali or Colin Kaepernick, the library is full of biographies of those whose journey to the right side of history begins on the wrong side of their present.

And so it seems apropos that the week in which we are acknowledging the heroism of Flood, who was born in Houston, we are reminded of just how difficult it is to stand up for what is right courtesy of a team from Houston.

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Seven words in a tweet — “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.” — that’s all it took for Daryl Morey, general manager of the Houston Rockets, to derail what was supposed to be a smooth Asian swing during the NBA’s preseason.

A tweet from an NBA general manager supporting Hong Kong protests could threaten the league’s business in China — and how the NBA is perceived in the U.S.

Now instead of debating whether or not James Harden’s latest move is a travel, the league is debating whether or not to sacrifice one of its top executives to appease the Chinese government.

A conversation that’s riddled with irony considering when President Bill Clinton advocated for China to enter the World Trade Organization, the prevailing thought was that trading with China would expose the Communist nation to democracy and encourage freedom. Twenty years later it is clear trading with China also has exported censorship in exchange for doing business with the most populous country in the world.

So while the NBA is often positioned as the most forward thinking of the pro leagues, it is clearly as money hungry as the much-maligned NFL. And this isn’t just because of how it back pedaled away from Morey’s tweet, but also the fact it appeared comfortable with the relationship to begin with.

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After all, the latest controversy is not new. For more than four months demonstrators in Hong Kong have been protesting a bill they believe would undermine the region’s autonomy and subject residents as well as visitors to mainland Chinese jurisdictions. Protests have been tinged with violence, including deaths, since the middle of summer. We could pretend no one in the NBA knew about the tensions — and more importantly, their cause — prior to Morey’s tweet. Or we can accept the fact that for all of the accolades the league receives for being progressive, at the end of the day it’s not willing to jeopardize a multibillion-dollar partnership for the sake of progressiveness.

Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey attends Yao Ming’s retirement news conference in China in 2011.
Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey attends Yao Ming’s retirement news conference in China in 2011.
(Getty Images)

And really, who is? Nike hasn’t made such a grandiose gesture. The film industry continues to rake in the Chinese bucks as well. And a special shout-out to the homies — and members of Congress — tweeting about their disapproval of the NBA’s handling of Morey’s tweet using smartphones made in China.

Sleepwalking through life isn’t my cup of tea, but admittedly being woke — like, really woke — requires a degree of sacrifice few are actually willing to make. That’s what makes the sacrifices of Flood, Ali and others so special. Once you’ve been presented with the information, the choices that follow are clear but difficult.

In ushering in an era of free agency, Flood made significant career and financial sacrifices to be on the right side of history. Ali, in fighting for his Constitutional rights, gave up years in his prime. Kaepernick is out of a league that has since allocated tens of millions of dollars to support the causes he used his platform to draw attention to.

Morey may not have fully understood the depth of the backlash, but he also knew it would not fall on deaf ears. Still, he took a chance as a citizen of the most powerful democracy in the world to tweet seven words in support of democracy. He may be excommunicated for it.

The Brooklyn Nets’ scheduled visit to a Shanghai area school has been canceled by the Chinese government, according to an NBA official.

It isn’t fair nor is it right, but to quote Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta, “when things are bad, eat the weak and grow your business.” For an NBA trying to smooth things over with China, Morey has become a tasty morsel.

LeBron James, who is set to play preseason games in Shanghai, has positioned himself as a social justice warrior. He is going to be asked about the controversy. He is going to offer an answer that is going to be unsatisfactory to someone, to some entity, to some country. This is the part of his story in which the backlash can be far more damaging than unflattering remarks on TV or burned jerseys. This is the part of the story in which “no comment” says more than any comment ever could.

Fifty years ago Flood made a decision that took almost everything from him, all for the greater good. Such is the path for the athlete — or sports executive— who wants to be viewed as more than that.


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