Playing Ball with Communist China?

March 8, 2021

If you tune into China Central Television (CCTV), you’ll see forced prisoner confessions, government propaganda, and the NBA. That’s right, basketball. 

The NBA’s recent return to CCTV reveals the league’s continuing complacency about human rights abuses and raises tough questions for basketball fans and human rights activists alike. What did the NBA do to regain favor with China? Why would they want to support the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the first place? 

The initial Chinese boycott of the NBA began in 2019 after Rockets general manager Daryl Morey posted a tweet backing the Hong Kong freedom fighters. While NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s initial response was to support free speech and listen to the concerns of players and coaches, it quickly became clear that the Chinese Communist Party had deemed this policy unacceptable. Silver later divulged that the controversy cost the NBA hundreds of millions of dollars. To regain favor, Commissioner Silver cut a deal with the CCP to appease stakeholders and get basketball back on the air in China. 

Still, the current role of the NBA in China is even more convoluted. The internal workings of the deal remain largely under wraps, but gifts and censorship seem to be in play. For instance, while some American front-line workers were still facing shortages of gloves and masks, the NBA was shipping medical supplies and Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) to the CCP. This gift to China is deeply troubling considering China largely corners the market on PPE production. 

Moreover, while Adam Silver proclaimed that “social justice” is part of the “DNA of this league” the same outspoken players who had defended democracy remained eerily silent. In fact, “social justice warrior” Lebron James criticized his teammates and pressed for silence on the issue. It seems the “DNA” needed to encourage players’ free speech goes missing in action when it might interfere with the Chinese Communist Party’s agenda. 

For the NBA, silencing players and distributing PPE is a small price to pay to remain on CCTV broadcasts. The NBA might be willing to play ball to keep their stakeholders appeased, but the thousands of Uyghurs sitting in concentration camps and the freedom fighters lingering in prison don’t have that same freedom. 

When it comes to the NBA, we have to demand better. That’s why I issued a formal letter to Commissioner Adam Silver demanding accountability and transparency from those behind the scenes of America’s game. Silver and NBA officials shouldn’t view securing airtime next to forced prisoner confessions and government propaganda as a badge of honor; they should instead recognize, as so many across the globe already have, that no ticket sale or merchandise deal is worth turning our backs on an international human rights crisis.