Adam Silver appeared at a Time magazine event this morning in New York City, where he spoke on the roiling controversy his organization has been in since Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey expressed a modicum of support for the Hong Kong protests. It was Silver’s first interview on the subject since returning to the United States from the NBA’s preseason Asia tour, and he addressed the scope of the fallout with China while refuting the idea that he or the NBA ever gave in to China.
His chief piece of evidence towards that claim is that the Chinese government straight-up asked the NBA to fire Morey, and the league refused. (It’s worth remembering, though, the Ringer’s report that the Rockets at least held internal discussions about whether to fire Morey or not. Did the decision to keep Morey come more from Silver’s end or Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta’s?) “We made clear that we were being asked to fire him, by the Chinese government, by the parties we dealt with, government and business,” Silver said. “We said there’s no chance that’s happening. There’s no chance we’ll even discipline him.”
Silver bluntly admitted that the league’s bottom line will suffer in the immediate term. “The losses have already been substantial,” he said. “Our games are not back on the air in China as we speak, and we’ll see what happens next. I don’t know where we go from here. The financial consequences have been and may continue to be fairly dramatic.”
The NBA commissioner took issue with the broad perception that he and the NBA caved to China in any way, because he views his organization’s response to the crisis as a “principled position.” Perhaps that perception has been aided by the NBA’s cowardly statements on the controversy, Silver immediately flying to China to try and salvage the relationship, the NBA’s PR apparatus trying to keep reporters from asking certain players about it, Fertitta throwing Morey under the bus with a quickness, and the simple fact that the NBA has aligned itself with a repressive government despite its numerous human rights abuses. The NBA was not shocked to learn two weeks ago that the autocratic regime running China does bad things and has a zero tolerance policy for dissent from anyone it sees as under its domain.
“These American values—we are an American business—travel with us wherever we go,” Silver said. “And one of those values is free expression. We wanted to make sure that everyone understood we were supporting free expression.”
Silver does deserve credit for not firing Morey on the spot, and the NBA certainly has caught more flak despite doing less to mollify China than the scores of other, larger companies who have happily rolled over and shown the Chinese government their bellies. Today’s comments are damage control—not with the Chinese officials he has been dealing with for a week now, but with American fans who are pissed at the league and its most prominent player for playing China’s game.
But there is only so much credit one can give the NBA for resisting China’s most extreme demand for appeasement when the NBA is responsible for putting itself in the eminently foreseeable position of needing to appease China in the first place. Morey’s continued employment isn’t proof that the league is not China’s stooge; it’s proof that, in this particular case, the league was only willing to go but so far to stooge for China. Silver can pat himself on the back for eventually drawing a line somewhere, but unless the NBA drastically reevaluates its subservient position to the Chinese market, the league will inevitably find itself here once again. When you sell your soul to the devil, the question isn’t whether he’ll come to collect, but rather when.