More than enough cowards to go around in NBA-China controversy

Members of the NBA family have had an extremely difficult time locating their social consciences and their vocal cords. It’s the sort of thing that can happen when a sports league has a $4 billion relationship with a country.

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Houston Rockets v Toronto Raptors

NBA commissioner Adam Silver speaks during a new conference before a preseason game between the Rockets and the Raptors in Saitama, Japan, on Tuesday.

Photo by Takashi Aoyama/Getty Images

Freedom of speech isn’t an internationally recognized right, and even where it is recognized, it isn’t always free. As Colin Kaepernick learned, it isn’t worth nearly as much as the U.S. dollar is. That’s what made his stand so noble. 

Money makes cowards out of a lot of us. America’s stated values are different from China’s. It wouldn’t seem to be such a big deal for an American to say, out loud, that China has some serious human-rights issues. That’s what we do. We take in the tired, the poor and the huddled masses yearning to breathe free – at least in theory. And we call out other nations for mistreating their own people. We see it as our duty as human beings, even if we look like we’re meddling in other countries’ business.

It’s our duty unless, you know, there’s cash involved.

On Oct. 4, Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted his support for the people in Hong Kong who were protesting one-time proposed legislation that would have extradited criminal suspects in the region to China for trial. Defendants in the Chinese court system are almost always found guilty. The protesters remain concerned about the toll on civil liberties and the effect on Hong Kong’s limited autonomy.

The tweet enraged leaders of the Chinese government, leading to the state-run TV station suspending the broadcast of NBA preseason games, including the Rockets-Raptors game in Japan last week.

Since then, members of the NBA family have had an extremely difficult time locating their social consciences and their vocal cords. 

It’s the sort of thing that can happen when a sports league has a $4 billion relationship with a country.

What we’ve witnessed since Morey’s now-deleted tweet has been a tortuous bit of corporate contortion. I have no idea how strongly Morey feels about the situation in Hong Kong, whether he knows anything about extradition or if he was just doing what he thinks the cool kids do. I do know that he is Mrs. O’Leary’s cow brought back to life.

The NBA originally released a statement saying it was “regrettable’’ that Morey’s tweet had offended “many of our fans and friends in China.’’ Then, under pressure from Americans who couldn’t help but notice that what Morey did was the essence of democracy and that the NBA apparently has a pipe cleaner for a backbone, league commissioner Adam Silver adjusted and said that of course the NBA supported individuals’ right to free speech.

But what has happened in China since then tells you all you need to know about what the league thinks of the nobility of the human person. It announced that reporters would not be allowed to interview the players or Silver after Saturday’s Lakers-Nets preseason game in Shenzhen. This came after the Chinese government had shut down player availability for the media after Thursday’s Lakers-Nets game in Shanghai. God forbid anyone say anything that might offend the hosts. Two authoritarian states -- one a country, the other a hoops league.

The decision to not make players available to the media Saturday reportedly was discussed with the NBA Players Association. Remember, many of those gym shoes that the athletes wear, the ones that earn them millions of dollars, are made in China. Do you think the players want to jeopardize the income that comes from those shoe deals?

NBA players are known for speaking out against societal issues, especially issues of race. It’s true that people get to decide what battles they want to fight. Perhaps some of the players feel like they have enough on their plate. But there’s no way to look at the oppression of certain groups in China and not see similarities with the plight of minorities in this country.

To not be allowed to make a peep about an international wrong is the kind of corporate gag order you’d expect from the stodgy NFL, not the supposedly progressive NBA.

NFL teams are uncomfortable with Kaepernick because they know his stand against social injustice alienates some fans. Having him on your roster would mean a loss of revenue. It’s why no team wants to be within 100 miles of him.

Funny what money does to you.

Just look at how the NBA has conducted itself throughout this ordeal.

When you’re bedmates with a country that has some unsavory attributes, some of that unsavoriness is going to ooze onto you. That was inevitable the day the NBA shook hands with China.

China’s defenders will say that the United States, with its multitude of problems, shouldn’t be telling any country how to act. The difference, of course, is that a large percentage of Americans recognizes those problems and 100 percent of us have the right to speak publicly about them. And having warts doesn’t preclude a country from pointing out another country’s warts.

Nobody comes out of this looking good. But some people, the ones wearing the logo of a dribbling basketball player, look worse than others. 

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