For whatever his faults may be (not being on your favorite team, hubris, brazenly studying the room without trying to hide it, etc.), LeBron James has consistently been a voice of progressive reason, but he has also been relentlessly acquisitive. Thus, no one ought to be nearly so surprised, shocked, or offended that he wanted to protect any personal financial impact from the NBA’s China Syndrome. After all, he may want to own a franchise someday, and besides, all the other principals were trying to protect their own as well.
This is in direct opposition to the Chinese government, which has held, currently hold and will continue to hold all the cards here. In a room full of gamblers, China is the house.
(To those who want a strident defense of the interests of the Hong Kong protestors here, please take it as implied. Geopolitics aren’t nearly so complicated if you view the world’s issues as matters of right or wrong based on even the most elemental moral and ethical base.)
Enter money and power, though, and it all goes to hell, because while the species can do the moral and ethical thing, it always seem to prefer the cash and the big chair because, well, it’s easier. In this case, the NBA wants access to China’s population and the money and influence that reasonably should flow from same, but to get it, the league has been forced to acknowledge that the Chinese supply includes Chinese demands. That’s how Daryl Morey got caught in a trap nobody foresaw—expressing mild indignation about the plight of pro-Democracy protestors and getting the back of everyone’s hand in a mad scramble to keep the Chinese from closing their borders to the basketball and the money that basketball can generate.
From the moment Morey tweeted out his message of support for the Hong Kong protestors, everyone not in the Chinese government scrambled to figure out how they could have a bad situation both ways. Adam Silver wanted to look like the progressive commissioner but worked for 30 billionaires who could give zero rats’ hindquarters about progressive causes. Tilman Fertitta wanted to defend Morey while shaming him publicly. Morey wanted to express his feelings while apologizing for expressing his feelings. Brooklyn owner Joe Tsai wanted a piece of the Chinese business that Fertitta was benefiting from while trying not to seem like he wanted the business. The players who met with Silver wanted to know why they had to explain the league’s position without having any say in the league’s position, and then wanted to know if there was a player who could jeopardize the business as they perceived Morey had and not be fired.
Enter LeBron, who happens to be the answer to that last question.
James’s choice of the word “misinformed” in reference to Morey has been the firing point, but it’s the one thing that Morey isn’t. He understood enough about the Hong Kong problem because he has friends who live there, and tweeted in support of their concerns. This doesn’t make him Johnny Politics, but he gets the issue more than your average league employee.
The word James needed to employ was “naive,” because everyone has been naive on this from the jump. The reality is that there is no real halfway point between being progressive and being pragmatic when it comes to billions of dollars today and in the future unless one also employs the word “facile,” which is how everyone has tried to play this, including James. They’ve taken simple chess and tried to create a draw in which they look principled and obedient simultaneously because they view that as the only way to save the money, which is naive. And, we should add, transparently yet blandly cynical. They can’t take both sides simultaneously because the two positions are in direct opposition to each other. James picked a side, and that side was rooted in self-interest.
LeBron did business, and ethics and progress will have to wait. The player everyone (unsoundly) viewed as the soundest progressive in the most progressive company chose the path of less resistance because pragmatism is what you do when the right thing may cause discomfort.
The Chinese government is not naive. It requires silence on Chinese political choices from its business partners as though they were Chinese citizens, and the NBA has offered just that. It has gagged its employees, or made it clear that speaking out is going to have consequences, so James taking the company line is actually going to be viewed as acceptable speech by the power-drivers with whom he will be spending his post-basketball career. He did what everyone in the NBA is trying to do: have enough from all sides to conflate self-interest and statesmanship. He will fail, because this is a moment that forces a choice.
Ray Ratto acknowledges the misinformed because their choices are always clear and easy: “Whatever keeps me from being bothered is what I want. The rest of you are OYO.”