More Than Just a Game: How the NBA’s Trouble in China Reflects a Different Culture War

Source: USA Today/
Source: USA Today/

You have likely heard this story before: A major American corporation, in its never-ending quest for new revenue and bigger profits, casts a hopeful eye toward China. With well over a billion people and a growing middle class, the math is straightforward. Sure, there is an authoritarian government that may need buddying up to, and it may require finding a local partner who will almost certainly demand access to the company’s technology and know-how. But a market that large is simply too promising to ignore. Besides, as the economy continues to grow and China becomes more inextricably linked with the rest of the world, won’t the environment become much more accommodating to American- nay, cosmopolitan- sensibilities? Maybe we should ask NBA commissioner Adam Silver what he thinks after his trip to the orient last week.

Even if you are not a sports fan, you are probably aware of the trouble the National Basketball Association found itself in after the general manager of one of its teams tweeted support for the protesters in Hong Kong. He promptly deleted the tweet and apologized for not being attentive to the sensitives involved, but the damage was already done. State-owned television announced that it would be dropping the broadcasts of all the pre-season exhibitions scheduled to be played in China, with the internet giant who streams NBA games following suit. Chinese corporations backed out of their NBA sponsorships, and NBA outreach events leading up to an exhibition in Shanghai were canceled. The game ended up being played as scheduled, but spectators were handed Chinese flags to wave to the exclusively foreign television audience. Ironically, the individual who set off the fire storm worked for the Houston Rockets, the very team that helped grow the popularity of the NBA in China by featuring Yao Ming in the 2000s.

As the steward of the NBA, Adam Silver was thrust into a no-win situation. By saying that the NBA will respect its employees’ free speech even if that means living with the consequences, he was bound to enrage Chinese officials, who promptly asserted that they were dissatisfied with the NBA’s response while pointing out threats to social stability and affronts to national sovereignty fall outside the scope of free speech. But by not working to repair the damage so that NBA games have a chance of getting back on Chinese screens and continue to reach a fan base that surpasses the entire US population is size, he has drawn criticism for selling out to an authoritarian regime in the interest of maintaining profits. While Marx would remind us that capitalists continually romp the globe in search of new markets with little regard for the social consequences of doing so, we have come to demand a higher standard of big business in the 21stCentury. And whether we like it or not, entertaining the world with sport has long since become big business.

But how is the NBA’s predicament any different than that of the many American transnational corporations who face the dilemma of forgoing one of the largest markets in the world or dealing with some of the headaches that come with doing business in China? At its essence, basketball is a game. Its trade secrets are pick-and-rolls and crossover dribbles, not computer algorithms or manufacturing processes. While the forceful acquisition of technology and knowhow makes Americans squeamish about retaining economic and military superiority, sport is a reflection of culture and therefore an instrument of soft power. It has the remarkable ability to bring people of various backgrounds together. Perhaps, then, it is all the more disappointing to the American psyche that Chinese viewers’ love of watching LeBron James dunk a basketball and Steph Curry nail three-point shots does not translate into calls for a more open society.

The point here is not that we should expect sports to be some magical panacea for economic and political friction. But we should be more critical about the assumptions we make about the strength of soft power and the diffusion of core values. We might, for example, want to rethink the notion that greater exposure to American social media and entertainment will inevitably make the Chinese populace more demanding of US-style society. Perhaps we should be open to the possibility that such exposure could instead stoke Chinese nationalism and in fact engender a greater sense of pride in what China has become.  And when it comes to core values, we should not forget that both sides of the Pacific have them. In fact, it is hard to get around in a Chinese city without coming across a banner that lists items like freedom, equality, and justice among the country’s core socialist values. While there is plenty of room to debate semantics, commercial actors looking to make a profit are probably not the most reliable agents for doing so.

It is entirely understandable to wince at thought of losing millions upon millions of dollars. The aforementioned LeBron James seems to have done just that by declaring that the Rocket’s general manager was not really educated on the issue and the possible ramifications when he made his infamous tweet. For his part, James has enthusiastically used both social media and his platform as an athlete to comment on social justice issues within the United States. Irking conservative talk-show host Laura Ingram into telling him to “shut up and dribble” helps cultivate an image that business partners like Nike and Beats can get enthusiastically get behind in the United States, but those same business partners cringe at the thought of irking the Chinese government into telling them to pack up and leave. Is LeBron James an apostate or merely attentive to context and nuance? The answer depends on one’s views about a whole host of issues domestic and global, political and economic. In the United States it has become acceptable- even if often controversial- for athletes and entertainers to wade into political issues. That same mix between entertainment and politics (or escapism and reality) is likely not exportable wholesale to various other parts of the world, not just China. Indeed, the row between the NBA and China is bigger than any game. It speaks to a different kind of culture war. True, that culture war involves in no small part the traditional struggle for hearts and minds that superpowers like to engage in. Yet that culture war also involves ideas about how corporations should behave and what kind of relationships countries should have in a globalized world beset with its fair share of problems. For the United States and China specifically, that culture war revolves in no small part around what kind of relationship the two states and its people should have. For the world more broadly, it revolves around new for litigating the sorts of issues that international relations scholars have contemplated for some time.

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7 thoughts on “More Than Just a Game: How the NBA’s Trouble in China Reflects a Different Culture War

  1. The point here is not that we should expect sports to be some magical panacea for economic and political friction. Why should this be?

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