This Isn’t Over: Time for the NBA to Go on Offense Against China

The league is uniquely positioned to dunk on the People’s Republic’s human rights atrocities.

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA – OCTOBER 22: A pro-Hong Kong activist holds an American flag as other activists (L) hold signs before the Los Angeles Lakers season opening game against the LA Clippers, outside Staples Center, on October 22, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. Activists also printed at least 10,000 pro-Hong Kong t-shirts to hand out to those attending the game and encouraged them to wear the free shirts as a form of peaceful protest against China amidst Chinese censorship of NBA games. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

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Hong Kong is in its sixth month of protests, the streets in “chaos” according to its own authorities—and the NBA’s 70th season is off to a smooth start both on and off the court. The league is seemingly off the hook for its preseason displays of China-related cravenness and hypocrisy.

That’s when its avowedly socially conscious leaders knuckled under to Beijing’s demands last month to keep Hong Kong protests and politics generally out of press conferences held in connection with exhibition games being played in the People’s Republic, and when even woke-er superstar players like LeBron James, and high-profile coaches like Steve Kerr, revealed themselves to be completely unconcerned with systemic Chinese repression despite their continuing to decry America’s flaws. Indeed, some of their comments could be read as excusing the Hong Kong crackdown, along with China’s persecution of its Uighur Muslim minority.

But the NBA should think twice about assuming that it’s escaped the China spotlight’s glare for good. Popular outrage among Americans could easily be sparked anew by a bloodbath in Hong Kong, or the more recent revelations of mass imprisonment of Uighur Muslims, or other atrocities. And if the NBA and its leading lights want to avoid getting the image equivalent of an ankle-breaker, they’ll consider dispensing with their stated fears about losing access to an already immense fan base. They’ll recognize instead that they’re uniquely positioned to spearhead a worldwide human rights pressure campaign.

Judging by the latest comments defending the NBA (from typically outspoken—though politically conservative—former all-star Charles Barkley), the league has added a new rationale for denying that Chinese Lives Matter: everybody does it.

According to Barkley, who was responding to an attack on the league’s China record by Vice President Mike Pence, “I don’t understand why these holier-than-thou politicians, if they’re so worried about China, why don’t they stop all transactions with China? I think it’s unfair for them to do all their business in China, and just because this thing happened, try to make the NBA and our players look bad. All American companies do business in China. Period.”

But not only can the league easily afford to resist China’s intimidation tactics, it has more than enough leverage to turn the tables on Beijing and mobilize a boycott of the People’s Republic by the American and foreign sports worlds alike.

Barkley was right to observe that few U.S.-owned companies have altered their business plans because of Beijing’s repression. Even so, the NBA community and its defenders have no case when they suggest that the NBA has little choice but to “shut up and dribble” on Chinese human rights issues.

Of course, China has embarked on an increasingly brazen campaign to force all foreign-owned businesses to toe its propaganda line as slavishly as its own companies do. And of course, Beijing’s efforts are confronting many non-Chinese companies with painful choices of kowtowing or suffering major hits to their bottom lines.

But the NBA isn’t one of these businesses. After all, the league hardly faces a loss of long-term competitiveness vis-a-vis foreign rivals if it walks away from China’s market. It hasn’t developed major Chinese dependencies by virtue of vast, Sino-centric supply chains.

The NBA has no serious foreign competition at all. If, for example, NBA teams refused to play in China and managed to significantly impede Chinese broadcasts of their games, they’d be cutting off Chinese fans from their athleticism, skill, and teamwork, all of which are in a class all their own. And Chinese audiences could be starved of even more top-flight basketball if the NCAA joined in, not to mention other leading overseas sports leagues and players. Nor is the league reliant on a notable pipeline of Chinese talent.

Yes, sports franchises and athletes would lose considerable money by avoiding China. But how much more wealth do team owners and athletes really need? Even if players like James and ownership groups like the Madison Square Garden crowd lost big chunks of their annual earnings, all (even the bench-warmers) would still be living the high life. In addition, all the money on earth couldn’t buy the good publicity they’d earn—which would open up major new revenue possibilities. Besides, it’s not like China’s is the world’s only big emerging market. If American sports wants to expand further overseas, it can focus on India (an NBA project is already underway there) or Europe (a big target of the NFL).

In other words, the NBA seems less motivated by valid business concerns than by greed that’s over the top even by this Gilded Age’s standards. As a result, they’ve blinded themselves to all the good that a leadership role might accomplish.

For whether it spreads beyond the United States or not, a sports boycott of China could wring major concessions on Hong Kong and the Uighurs, as well as achieving other results. And whatever the outcome on policy, the hyper-sensitive Chinese government would lose enormous face both internationally and domestically, since it would be revealed as powerless to bully the global business community.

Both developments, in turn, could generate powerful knock-on effects. Other businesses around the world could be inspired to flip off China. Even more importantly, consumers might be much more willing to pay more for non-Chinese goods and therefore shrink China’s crucial trade revenue streams if they see that big companies and high-profile celebrities are also making some sacrifices.

Commissioner Adam Silver recently stated, with much justifiable pride, that a “belief in the power of sports to make a difference” is the NBA’s “bedrock principle.” Because the league approaches China without many of the weaknesses inhibiting other companies and industries, it’s fully capable of making a difference and even of helping protect global security and liberty from burgeoning Chinese threats. All it needs is the will to show off its transition game: get out of its defensive crouch and go on offense against China until Beijing cleans up at least some of its human rights act.

Alan Tonelson, the founder of RealityChek, a blog on economic and national security policy, and the author of The Race to the Bottom, is a long-suffering New York Knicks fan.

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