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Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Fake outrage is not going to solve controversy between NBA and China

<p>LeBron James.</p>

LeBron James.

If something controversial happens and no one is around to tweet about it, did it still happen?

The short answer is no, at least in the eyes of the American public. For months, protests have shaken Hong Kong in response to a proposed bill that would allow extradition to mainland China. The bill has since been withdrawn, but the demonstrations continue.

The situation remained out of the eye of many Americans until Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey fired off a seemingly innocuous tweet in support of the protestors. 

Morey, a high-profile executive for a team with deep ties to China due to the heritage of hall of famer Yao Ming, angered the Chinese government.

So the NBA, which does millions of dollars’ worth of business in China — the largest nation in the world and a growing basketball market — had to choose between dollars and democracy, and you can guess what it chose. It was crucified for its decision, and rightly so.

The talk of basketball and China had largely died down until last night, when LeBron James spoke on the matter.

And for what we have come to expect from James, he blew it.

He had a week to formulate a well-thought-out take on what the league should have, or could have done, and he offered a paltry response, which was correctly called out for being uncharacteristically weak. So much so that he had to take to Twitter — where all geopolitical crises begin nowadays — to clarify his comments, saying that he and his team had been through a difficult week and that he wished Morey had tweeted what he did later. He presumably said the last part because James’ team, the Lakers, and other NBA teams were in China for preseason exhibition games in the days after.

There’s not all that much nuance to the situation. James and the NBA had the most to lose in the extreme case where China embargoes basketball, and with it the shoe deals, television rights and massive market. So they walked back the comments of one of their own and abided by the oh-so-ignorant “stick to sports” command, which is what I thought people wanted.

The Ringer’s Ryen Russillo put it best on his podcast:

“There is nothing easier than being the moralist when you’re telling the other person what they should do, when they’re the person in the conversation that has something to lose and you have nothing to lose.”

The NBA has millions to lose in China. So does James. It didn’t want to compromise that, and that’s the hill it was willing to die on. But what’s more American than sacrificing morals for money?

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Why does a social stance have to come on command only after it was brought up in Western media because a millionaire tweeted about it? Protests began in Hong Kong long before Morey tweeted his support, and they’ll likely continue long after this exits the news cycle. 

Now I’m sure everyone with a stern tweet directed at James, or those in his realm — like Steve Kerr and Greg Poppovich — is thoroughly educated on the Hong Kong protests that Morey tweeted about in the first place, right? They’re all just pro-democracy history buffs who absolutely couldn’t stand the fact that China is infringing on the people of Hong Kong’s rights and, like Morey, have supported the protests.

Or maybe their fake outrage just fits their agenda. You didn’t agree with James, Kerr, Popovich or Stephen Curry when they said they didn’t like the president or spoke out on a litany of other issues, so now is the chance to figuratively dunk on your least favorite basketball activist. They didn’t stick to sports and now you have your chance to put them in their place.

This what-about-ism is an exhausted take. James didn’t have to have a take on China, but he did, and he most certainly didn’t have the most noble one. That doesn’t diminish all the times in the past that he spoke out, was right, and was still told to shut up and dribble.

Disingenuous outrage is a fraudulent attempt to latch onto the celebrity status of a prominent figure and drag them down. James said Morey should have educated himself more on the impact his comments may have. I think some people need to read up on the situation before throwing their hat in the ring as well.

James should have thought more when he spoke and when he tweeted his clarification, but let’s not hold athletes to a higher standard than our elected officials.

The NBA isn’t the only brand that bends the knee when it affects their bottom line, so don’t just get outraged when it’s convenient.

Follow Kyle Wood on Twitter @Kkylewood. Contact him at

LeBron James.

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