To Ohio basketball fans, clips of LeBron jersey burnings seem a thing of the past, but this time his jerseys are being burned outside the U.S.
Two weeks ago, the General Manager of the Houston Rockets Daryl Morey, in a now deleted tweet, expressed support for the recent Hong Kong protests, with an image saying “Fight for Freedom, Stand for Hong Kong.” The National Basketball Association has remained a neutral stance on the issue, as commissioner Adam Silver iterated that the league “will protect [their] employees’ freedom of speech,” but on the official NBA Weibo page, the league issued a more sympathetic statement saying they were “extremely disappointed in the inappropriate comment,” and “[Morey] has undoubtedly seriously hurt the feelings of Chinese basketball fans.”
Reportedly, Silver travelled to Shanghai, where the Los Angeles Lakers played the Brooklyn Nets for a preseason game, to discuss with Chinese officials how best to defuse the situation. Media availability after the game was denied, and outreach programs were cancelled.
China railed against Morey’s tweet, China Central Television decided not to broadcast the preseason games, and retained the solemn stance by not showing the hyped Battle of LA season opener, in which the Lakers fell to the Los Angeles Clippers. Chinese companies such as Anta, who sponsors Golden State Warriors guard Klay Thompson, and Luckin Star Coffee have cut ties with the league, as well as the Chinese Basketball Association, which former Houston Rocket center Yao Ming serves as president of. As a financial corporation, the NBA must keep their business relationships with Chinese companies healthy, since the NBA has a $1.5 billion deal with streaming giant Tecent on the line.
What angered fans in Hong Kong was when James broke the silence, saying in an interview that “[Morey] wasn’t educated on the situation at hand [when] he spoke … and so many people could have been harmed not only financially, physically, emotionally, spiritually. So just be careful what we tweet … ” James has a history of being vocal in political issues, such as wearing ‘I can’t breathe’ shirts in support of Eric Garner, tweeting against President Donald Trump and recently filming a documentary “Shut up and Dribble” to create awareness on social injustices in America.
As a Taiwanese American, I feel sympathy toward LeBron being a person with a huge Chinese following and having the responsibility to preserve business relationships with Nike and all his other endorsements. When talking about Taiwanese independence, the socially acceptable notion is to just not talk about it at all. It’s hard to talk about a political situation where there is a clear clash of American freedom of speech ideals and Chinese government policy in a neutral field such as sports. Although the NBA did hold a training camp in Xinjiang, where around a million Muslim Uighur people are kept in a concentration camp, it poses the question of whether businesses should turn a blind eye to social injustice. Unexpectedly, the NBA serves as a vehicle in sparking conversation of the protests, and the world will watch how it will unfold.