On a CNN Citizen interview with sportscasting legend Bob Costas, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver was asked about the league’s relationship with China.
The NBA is a progressive league, Costas said, but how does it reconcile the ongoing relationship pro basketball has with what he called “a major and brutal human rights abuser like China.”
“There are definitely trade-offs there, and somebody could say given the system of government in China, you the NBA should make a decision not to operate there,” Silver said. “I would only say that at the end of the day, I think those are decisions for our government in terms of where American businesses should operate.”
Silver and the NBA have come under harsh criticism from Republican groups and lawmakers, including Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, who wrote a letter in July blasting the league for “kowtowing to Beijing and refusing to support U.S. military and law enforcement.”
“I continue to believe that the people to people exchanges we’re seeing by playing in China are positive,” Silver said. “It helps cultures learn about each other, it allows us to export American values to China.”
Those values came to an abrupt halt a year ago, Silver said, when Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, whom Silver did not name but just referred to as a general manager, tweeted about the human rights abuses going on in Hong Kong. “Fight For Freedom. Stand With Hong Kong,” Morey tweeted.
As a result of that tweet, Houston and the league lost hundreds of millions in sponsorship and TV dollars, including the NBA being taken off Chinese Central Television in China. Silver and the NBA were also harshly, and still are, criticized by certain politicians in the U.S. for not completely siding with Morey and not standing up against the human rights violations Costas alluded to in his initial question.
“We could’ve decided because they took us off CCTV that therefore we should, in essence, take our ball and go home and stop operating there,” Silver continued. “The fact is our games continue to be streamed on Tencent in China and we’ve continued in there.”
Silver described how the NBA has been operating in China for 40 years and really began in the late 1970s when former Washington Bullets, now Wizards, owner Abe Pollin, decided to bring his team to play exhibition games in Beijing.
“There was a decision that it was good for the world to build these relationships through sports,” Silver said, no different than the Olympic games the U.S. attends every two years. “The thought was, these cultural exchanges were critically important, especially at times when normal channels weren’t operating for diplomatic conversations.”
As the years have gone by, Silver said, the NBA and the U.S. business world has increased its presence in China, where the league still makes a ton of money.
“Until very recent history, at the encouragement of the State Departments of various administrations on both sides of the aisle, it was viewed as a really positive thing that we were exporting American values to China through the NBA,” Silver said.
While plenty of Silver and the NBA’s critics and detractors may disagree, he still thinks that it’s a net positive not to move toward disengagement with China.
“That’s not good for the world,” he said. “Superpowers like the U.S. and China need to find ways to continue to operate together.”