A year ago, Nike unveiled its “Dream Crazy” ad. It featured former quarterback Colin Kaepernick, best known for kneeling during the national anthem in protest of police brutality and racism. The message, printed over the image of Kaepernick staring back at the camera, told the viewers: “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything. #JustDoIt.” For days, social media was filled with squabbling between those who supported Kaepernick and applauded the sentiment, and naysayers who hated the ad and called for a boycott of the “anti-American” business. Capitalizing on the controversy paid off: the ad won an emmy for Outstanding Commercial last month and it added a cool $6 billion to the company’s market value.
Now, in the fallout surrounding the conflict between NBA executives and China, Houston Rockets’ sneakers and other merchandise have been pulled from the shelves in Nike stores in numerous Chinese cities. Evidently you should believe in something – as long as it’s profitable. Speaking out against injustice, a value which we Americans allegedly hold so dear, now comes with a price tag that is too much for American companies to bear.
It all started when Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey innocuously tweeted an image with a simple message — “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong” — signaling his support of the anti-government protests currently unfolding in China. He promptly deleted the tweet and apologized when it became clear what he stepped into, but the trainwreck was already set in motion.
The Chinese reply was swift and merciless. The Chinese consulate denounced Morey’s “erroneous comments“, the Chinese Basketball Association ceased all cooperation with the Rockets, the state-run television station suspended broadcasts of preseason games, and promotional events were canceled.
The NBA did it’s best to justify acquiescing to the demands of an overseas authoritarian regime. The desperate flailing somehow made everything worse; the overarching theme was that athletes or managers have no business openly espousing their political views.
“Listen….@dmorey does NOT speak for the @HoustonRockets,” tweeted Rockets owner, Tilman Fertitta. “Our presence in Tokyo is all about the promotion of the @NBA internationally and we are NOT a political organization.”
“We recognize that the views expressed by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey have deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China, which is regrettable,” reads the NBA’s initial statement. “While Daryl has made it clear that his tweet does not represent the Rockets or the NBA, the values of the league support individuals’ educating themselves and sharing their views on matters important to them.”
“It is inevitable that people around the world — including from America and China — will have different viewpoints over different issues,” said NBA commissioner Adam Silver, in an attempt to clarify the statement. “It is not the role of the NBA to adjudicate those differences.”
Since when? The NBA was one of the most politically loud sports leagues in existence before it stepped on China’s toes.
In 2017, the league pulled the 2017 All-Star Game from Charlotte in protest of the state’s House Bill 2, which peeled away the anti-discrimination protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the state.
Just last year, Silver himself lauded his league’s willingness to speak out on controversial social issues, saying “sense of an obligation, social responsibility, a desire to speak up directly about issues that are important” and it’s “part of being an NBA player.”
Civil rights involving racial discrimination and police brutality are spotlighted by many of the league’s superstars. Social justice has been a part of the NBA’s unique luster. That is why it’s so disheartening to see these firebrands suddenly go quiet on this issue, with LeBron James even going as far as to say Morey “wasn’t educated on the situation at hand.”
The world has been aware of China’s shoddy human rights for years now. It was the executives, managers, and players who decided to knowingly make Faustian deals with a country controlled by a totalitarian regime.
Some of James’s most lucrative appearances of the year — two with Nike and one with Beats by Dre — were canceled due to this controversy. It is clear where his priorities lie.
Opposing American injustice didn’t hurt their bottom line. In fact, if the “Dream Crazy” ad is any indicator, companies have learned how to capitalize on “wokeness” and use it to make American consumers feel good about themselves for emptying their wallets. Overseas, their fortunes are reliant on an entirely different demographic, and the ramifications for them and the rest of us are palpable.
Ironically, Morey offending the Chinese government over a tweet has become the lightning rod issue that may finally draw worldwide attention to what is happening to Hong Kong and how much influence foreign money has over our country. It is one of the few issues that has united politicians on both sides of the aisle and coverage of just how far the censorship has spread has been intense. They cannot ignore it.
The situation remains volatile, and its tentacles also threaten to entangle more industries; gaming giant Blizzard Entertainment is also catching flak for banning three college Hearthstone players from competitive play for voicing similar support for Hong Kong
What will determine if any of this has any lasting effects is how far we, the consumers, are willing to go to hold the NBA accountable for its transparent hypocrisy. We should boycott games, refuse to buy merchandise, and have our government impose their own countermeasures. If we are willing to forfeit our own comfort and conveniences, we may avoid setting a disturbing precedent and just might get out of this in a better state than the one we were in before… and so may Hong Kong.