That, in turn, sparked its own outrage. Americanpoliticianson both sides of the aisle swiftly criticized Fertitta and the league for their response, calling it capitulation and selling out. Indeed, instead of Morey’s call to “Fight for freedom. Stand with Hong Kong,” maybe he should have urged his followers to support freedom by standing with him. Because while Morey might live in America, work in America and hold American citizenship, it turns out that he is still subject to economic and social pressure from an autocratic regime half a world away.
But though this might be deplorable, it is hardly shocking, and the politicians might as well save their time because they won’t be able to change this dynamic anytime soon. The NBA, like so many other U.S. companies and institutions, has agreed that submitting to authoritarianism is a reasonable price to pay for audience growth. This episode was put in motion the day the NBA entered China; the sin wasn’t the NBA’s apology on Sunday for a now-deleted tweet, but the fundamental decision to stake its future on investing in the Chinese system.
That investment — and its payoff — has been huge. Basketball was introduced to Mainland China in the early 1900s by YMCA missionaries, and while Mao Zedong purged most Western-tinged cultural excesses from the country during his reign in the middle of the last century, he felt that basketball’s communal spirit and emphasis on teamwork gave it a place in revolutionary China. In 1987, in the middle of the NBA’s glory days, the league gave the television rights to their games to Chinese state television for nothing, a gambit to get the product's rising popularity to spread across its massive audience.
And no team has ridden the cresting wave of Chinese support like the Houston Rockets. In 2002, Houston drafted Yao Ming first overall in the NBA Draft. Seven-foot-six, with an impeccable shooting touch, back-to-the-bracket skills and preternatural defensive instincts, Yao became a sensation overnight. There had been other Chinese players in the league before Yao, but none were even close to registering his level of on-court production or off-court charisma.
The Rockets took the opportunity of having Yao on their roster to make themselves the unofficial team of China. Their Yao-era teams wore a Chinese-styled jersey, the team plays exhibition games there basically every year, many of their players have lucrative sponsorships in China, and they have the second-largest NBA social media presence, behind only the league’s dynastic juggernaut, the Golden State Warriors.
The submission to authoritarian impulses might be unseemly on the part of Fertitta and the NBA, but that kind of market share in a country whose spending power is growing by the day was a reason paying more than $2 billion for an NBA teamcould be considered a good investment in the first place. The basic fact of the matter — not just for basketball, but for the whole of international capital in the 21st century — is that China represents the biggest opportunity for growth, and offending their authoritarian government can make doing business there much harder.
You can blame the NBA and the Rockets for this capitulation, but that’s simply too narrow. Everyone who lives by the grace of global capital is, in some way, in thrall to the forces of authoritarianism. If you’re reading this on an iPhone, you could be using a product built with unfair labor practices that the Chinese government tacitly enables, a phone you purchased that put some tax duty into the pocket of the Chinese government that funds a campaign of terror against Muslim Uighur populations in Xinjiang. If you’re working for a company that does business with factories or phone banks in China, you are working for a business that is conforming to the needs of an authoritarian regime.
The NBA is a functionary of capital, like every other big business in the Western world, and capital has little moral or democratic sense — it just goes where the money is and squishes itself into whatever position is asked of it. Telling your employees to get with the program isn’t an act of cowardice, it’s an act of common sense. If Americans want that common sense to change, well, they’re going to have to start with a more important institution than a basketball league.
CORRECTION (Oct. 8, 2019, 9:35 a.m. ET): A previous version of this article misspelled the names of two stars outfitted by the Chinese shoe manufacturer Li-Ning. They are Dwyane Wade, not Dwayne, and CJ McCollum, not McColumn.
Corbin Smith is a writer from Vancouver, Washington.