Sports News Without Access, Favor, Or Discretion

The NBA Doesn’t Give A Fuck About People

Photo: Mark Schiefelbein (AP)

The NBA already knows the math. The NBA already knows that whatever price it may pay for aligning themselves with the Chinese government against one of its own teams’ employees—all because Rockets GM Daryl Morey tweeted out a show of support for protesters in Hong Kong—will be nothing compared to what they stood to lose if they had grown a fucking spine. Morey’s single tweet was enough to raise the ire of the mainland Chinese government and put both the NBA’s and the Rockets’ lucrative relationships with China in peril. Those relationships are worth billions of dollars: the fruit of the league’s 20th-century efforts to extend their brand into Asia and points beyond. The NBA is more than happy to endure a lousy news cycle, pissy op-eds like this included, to preserve those riches. Getting ratioed is a low cost of doing business when you’ve already traded your soul away. And pretending you’re not owned is not only a pervasive damage control model in America, but a depressingly effective one as well.

If you’d like, you can seek out an explainer on the Hong Kong protests, which are rooted in issues that can extend far beyond the grasp of an American lay person such as myself, but can also be seen on a superficial level as Hong Kong residents expressing their free speech because they believe potential extradition laws will make it easier for the Chinese government to punish them for any future dissent. Those fears are well-founded, as China has a long track record of punishing its citizens on the mainland for such offenses. I’m gonna go ahead and assume that it was this distillation that led Morey to his initial tweet. But I am NOT gonna assume that the densely knotted history undergirding the protests is the reason why the Rockets’ owner Tilman Fertitta hurled Morey under a light rail, nor do I assume it’s the reason why Morey issued this retraction:

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I believe that Morey SHOULD apologize for the various crimes that he and the Rockets have committed against aesthetically pleasing basketball. But this is not that. This is clearly a case of Morey backtracking because he dared to indirectly fuck with the NBA’s money, all because he vocally supported human rights. This is China making their suppression of free speech contagious through the language of money—as they’ve done with other American corporate monoliths such as Google and Apple—and the NBA’s owners and executives are more than happy to participate in that little currency exchange. They don’t give a fuck about Hong Kong and they don’t give a fuck about anyone who cares about Hong Kong, you included.

And they’re gonna get away with it. After all, look at how the chessboard is set up for them. The NBA has one broadcast partner in ESPN that has already bent over backwards to please America’s tactical dads by issuing a STICK TO SPORTS mandate, one that shares the same DNA with Fertitta’s hasty attempts to disavow Morey:

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ESPN isn’t gonna make the NBA pay for this. The U.S. government certainly isn’t gonna make the NBA pay for this. Basketbloggers across the country aren’t gonna make the NBA pay for it, either. They’re still gonna get League Pass and tweet YASSSSSSSSSS anytime Steve Kerr says the President is out of line. The story will die and then the NBA can resume its guilt-free foray into a Chinese market, along with all the moral compromises that entails.

It’ll be easy for them for wriggle out of all this because it’s easy to pretend that nothing about this arrangement is unseemly. Americans are used to such concessions. I myself take a paycheck from Great Hill Partners. If you want to make money in 2019, it’s probably gonna come from a sausage factory you’d rather not see the inside of.

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For the NBA’s media partners and other affiliated media, there’s no money to be had in supporting the helpless and disenfranchised. They train their pundits and designated yappers to be utterly unable to discuss ANY of this in depth. This is fair to a point—no one is asking Golic and Wingo to be an intense seminar in modern Chinese history—but it also trains the viewer at home to expect these issues to never get discussed AT ALL; to not even bother expecting, nor hoping, that Tracy & The Goober’s Morning Crotch Grab will be able to discuss what Morey said about Hong Kong even on a superficial level, as Morey himself did. It also trains the viewer to be actively HOSTILE to such an issue penetrating their morning sports arguments, to treat such asides as un-American.

That’s how an employee like Morey speaking out here ends up being considered extraordinary. No one bats an eye when sports organizations do business with repressive regimes in the first place: FIFA and the Gulf petrostates, the IOC kowtowing to Russia, WWE running shows for Saudi Arabia, basically all MMA organizations getting in bed with various Central Asian dictators and warlords, etc. It feels like that’s extremely backward, but I guess this is the state of affairs brought about by mass idiot insistence that sports can be “apolitical” in the first place.

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You don’t necessarily have to have a PhD to talk about Hong Kong—though Lord knows ESPN would have access to such people if it bothered to have them on. There’s only the IDEA that you do. But it’s neither cumbersome nor stupid for someone in the NBA orbit to say what is plainly evident, which is that this is FUCKED. I live in a sports landscape where I would be genuinely surprised to hear, like, Mike Francesa say that the NBA becoming a propaganda arm for the Chinese government is bad. That shouldn’t be the case. Even someone as deeply old and stupid as Mike should be able to note it.

That’s not how shit works right now. That’s not the calculus. The calculus is Tilman Fertitta (a Trump guy, natch) making bank off the Rockets in the Chinese market, and then immediately fuming when someone in his employ says something in support of Chinese opposition. Then he can bitch that Daryl Morey didn’t stay in his lane, and he knows that not only does he have the backing of his league, but the backing of virtually the entire American economic apparatus and Americans who support it because they’re all in on THAT team and no other. Those who give a fuck are the outliers. In that regard, Adam Silver’s NBA fails to stand out whatsoever.

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About the author

Drew Magary

Drew Magary is a Deadspin columnist and columnist for GEN magazine. You can buy Drew's second novel, The Hike, through here.