The Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets touched down earlier this week in China and landed smack-dab in the middle of an international, geopolitical crisis. Throughout this week, China has escalated its efforts to bully the NBA into outright condemning Daryl Morey for his now-infamous tweet supporting the protests in Hong Kong. In its efforts to do this, the government has canceled charitable events and even pulled down signage of NBA superstars around Shanghai.
On the eve of their preseason matchup and with no end in sight to that escalation, the NBA should bring home both the Lakers and Nets for a variety of reasons, even if doing so could put at risk the decades of work the league has put in to nurture its relationship with the extremely profitable and basketball-crazed nation of China.
For starters, the question begs asking: What exactly is the upside to staying in China and playing these games?
When the Lakers arrived in China, rather than the typical circus that awaits them upon landing, only a handful of fans stood outside their hotel, and many were reluctant to show their face. If that is an indication of how the games might be received, the Lakers and Nets will be a playing meaningless game halfway around the world that won’t be televised in that nation, and doing so in front of a sparse crowd.
And that might be the best case scenario.
Let’s say fans do show up. While there have been no indications that they could turn violent, nor any signs that the government would try to intimidate with a police presence, that doesn’t necessarily mean either are out of the realm of possibility given the way China usually responds to anyone who dares publicly disagree with how they conduct business.
By continuing to behave as though things are normal, the NBA could be putting at risk its marquee franchise, its current greatest ambassador and his heir apparent, and one of its most exciting, up-and-coming teams, not to mention countless league and team employees, as well as the media contingent that’s traveled to cover these games.
If a protest was to break out on either side of the spectrum, does the NBA have necessary personnel out there to ensure everyone remains safe? Is such a thing even possible should Chinese police get involved? These are questions that have to be answered beyond a reasonable doubt if Adam Silver is willing to risk the safety of the Lakers and Nets simply in order to have a chance at maintaining the league’s standing with China.
So lets reiterate: The Nets and Lakers are being asked to remain in a hostile environment that features an angry authoritarian regime and, the longer they stay there, the worse the effects of flying all the way to China get, as their bodies will further acclimate to the 12- or 15-hour time change with little to no immediate upside, all while an 82-game-plus season awaits them when they get home.
At no point in any of this has China come close to relenting on their stance that, in order to do business with them, you have to kowtow to their ideas of sovereignty. Period. No compromise. Two preseason games played there under these circumstances will not change that.
Set aside the practicality of the matter, and there’s something to be said about the NBA sending the message that American freedom of speech is more important than its bottom line. Without wading into China’s relationship with Hong Kong and the atrocities its government regularly commits against its own people, the idea that a foreign nation could effectively muzzle an American citizen and multi-billion-dollar entity is not one that the NBA should stand for — and credit to Silver to recognizing this with his second statement on the matter yesterday.
Could bringing the teams back home impact the very fabric of the league’s finances? Absolutely. Might even some of the players show frustration at the possibility that doing so could throw a major wrench into the entire shoe industry? Definitely.
But are those things worth risking the actual personal safety of everyone involved in this charade of an exhibition series? Not remotely.
The NBA finds itself in the middle of two very American concepts: Freedom of speech and capitalism. To this point, it has tried to play things down the middle, not really appeasing anyone. But when continuing to do so risks the safety of its players and employees, as well as stands against what its primary fan base believes strongly at a constitutional level, it’s time to call this whole thing off and deal with the ramifications as they come.