At the beginning of Inside the NBA on Thursday, Ernie Johnson, Kenny Smith and Charles Barkley sat with commissioner Adam Silver just a couple days after the crew tackled the league’s China debacle for the first time this season. As a quick note for context about this segment’s somber tone and pacing, the crew spent the first couple minutes of the show discussing the death of Shaq’s sister, and everyone at the table had literally just sent their best wishes—Johnson sounded particularly shaken—to the analyst and his family.
Silver for the most part repeated talking points that other members of the league had brought up at one point or another. He said his main concern at the time he found out about Daryl Morey’s tweet was the safety of the two teams, the Nets and Lakers, playing a preseason game in China. He tried to claim the league never swayed from their “values of freedom of expression.” When Johnson pushed back on this claim, adding that no one interpreted the first statement that way, Silver tried to push the poor wording of the league’s statement on the fast-paced speed of society before allowing that he’d tried too carefully to “thread the needle” between supporting free expression and respecting China. Denying that the league suppressed any speech, or even hinted at doing so, was a common refrain.
Johnson then brought up comments that the elderly Lego-man vice president made earlier Thursday, when he called the NBA “a wholly owned subsidiary of the authoritarian regime,” adding that the league was “siding with the Chinese Communist Party and silencing free speech.” Silver had the following response:
“We’re going to double down on engaging with the people of China and India and throughout Africa, throughout the world regardless of their governments. Certainly if we get to a point where the U.S. government tells us we shouldn’t be doing business in certain territories or countries, we won’t. But I’m a firm believer that through sports, independent of governments, you bring people together, they acknowledge that commonality they create empathy. Through personal relationships, there’s no substitute. This league for decades has been on the ground in China, spreading the game, teaching the values of this game, and, again, I think those are core American values and I’ve never wavered.”
It’s this comment in particular that stands out as proof that the commissioner has just not learned any lessons from everything that’s happened. It would be nice to live in a world where the sport of basketball could mend all bridges and heal all wounds—something that Silver pretty much says later in the broadcast—but the fact that one tweet from a general manager nearly caused an international catastrophe shows that there are limits to the sport’s perceived power. Disregarding the kind of government in place when deciding where to expand the league’s reach will only continue to increase the likelihood that something similar to this Morey cycle could happen again. Sure, Silver says that he’ll fall in line with whatever restrictions the U.S. government puts on where the league can and can’t go, but expecting this administration to go out of its way to interfere with an American company’s business overseas—especially on moral grounds—gives the league an awful lot of not-at-all-coincidental breathing room.
Among Silver’s final comments is yet another concerning statement where he tries to de-politicize the league’s international business, saying, “The larger issue between the U.S. and China has absolutely nothing to do with the NBA.” It would be one thing if this comment were being made in a vacuum—though it still wouldn’t be great, as most people who have watched this shitshow unfold from the beginning would tell you—but this came just minutes after Silver had to respond to comments made by the actual vice president of the United States. What long appeared to separate the NBA from most other leagues was always the ability of those at the top to recognize that sports occur within the material realities of people around the world, and not outside of them. As if any more proof was necessary, it’s become clear that that posture was more an expression of business savvy than any real conviction.
You can watch the entirety of the Inside the NBA segment below: