The national editor of this newspaper last year asked the commissioner of the N.B.A. at a conference how it felt “to be the wokest professional sports league.” It was a fair description: While Colin Kaepernick has been unable to find a job in the N.F.L. after kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality, basketball stars like LeBron James, Derrick Rose and Kobe Bryant have freely expressed their support for the Black Lives Matter movement, even on the court.
It’s a reputation — and a brand — that the league has cultivated. “I didn’t know we were given that designation,” Adam Silver, the N.B.A. commissioner, responded. “But I understand the sentiment and we’re proud of that.” He went on to insist that “political speech” is players’ “absolute right within the league.”
Absolutely, that is, unless the subject of that political speech is the Chinese Communist Party, which presents perhaps the greatest strategic threat to our freedoms of any regime in the world. On that subject, Mr. Silver and the league he runs are shamefully silent.
A stunning instance of N.B.A. acquiescence to Beijing began on Friday evening when Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets, put out a tweet expressing support for Hong Kong’s democracy movement: “Fight for freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.” You might assume that the wokest professional sports league — this is a business, after all, that pulled its all-star game out of Charlotte, N.C., in 2017 because of that state’s anti-transgender bathroom bill — would see human rights, representative democracy and freedom of conscience as core virtues. But you would be wrong.
The Morey tweet, though promptly deleted, went viral in China, where outrage from sponsors and fans was fast and furious. But the swiftness with which the N.B.A. bent its knee to Chinese sensitivities was truly breathtaking for a league that prides itself on a “sense of an obligation, social responsibility, a desire to speak up directly about issues that are important,” as Mr. Silver has boasted. Perhaps the fact as many as 500 million Chinese watched at least one N.B.A. game last season and the N.B.A.’s business operations there are valued at more than $4 billion had something to do with it.
The owner of the Houston Rockets, Tilman Fertitta, didn’t hesitate to throw his general manager under the bus: “Listen … @dmorey does not speak for the @HoustonRockets. Our presence in Tokyo is all about the promotion of the @NBA internationally and we are not a political organization,” he posted late Friday night, a few days before a Rockets preseason game in Japan.
Soon after came Mr. Morey’s walk back: “I did not intend my tweet to cause any offense to Rockets fans and friends of mine in China. I was merely voicing one thought, based on one interpretation, of one complicated event. I have had a lot of opportunity since that tweet to hear and consider other perspectives.”
Among the offended was the Chinese Basketball Association, which immediately suspended its relationship with the Rockets. The association is headed by Yao Ming, a former Rockets player who made the team by far the most popular N.B.A. franchise in China. By Monday, the current Rockets star James Harden offered a full-throated apology on behalf of his boss: “We apologize. You know, we love China. We love playing there.”
The N.B.A.’s official Chinese apology, put out on the social media site Sina Weibo (China’s version of Twitter), was something to behold: “We are extremely disappointed in the inappropriate comment by the general manager of the Houston Rockets,” it said. Mr. Morey “undoubtedly seriously hurt the feelings of Chinese basketball fans.”
All of this comes just as the Los Angeles Lakers and the Brooklyn Nets are headed to China for a two-game exhibition. The Nets are owned by Joe Tsai, a co-founder of Alibaba, who weighed in on the Morey controversy in a long Facebook post that called the tweet “damaging,” the democracy protesters a “separatist movement” and the subject of Hong Kong’s independence a “third-rail issue.”
That an Alibaba chief sees the situation this way — the company’s technology has been used by the Chinese government to surveil its citizens — should not come as a surprise to anyone. The question is how an American league that prides itself on promoting progressive values squares those values with allowing an apologist for authoritarianism to own one of its teams. What’s more, why is a league run by a commissioner who rightly criticized President Trump’s Muslim travel ban for going “against the fundamental values and the fundamental ingredients of what makes for a great N.B.A.” also running a training camp for young players in the Chinese region of Xinjiang, amid camps of a far different kind?
Woke politics often seems to train our collective attention down on our navels rather than out at the world. Is the issue of gender-neutral bathrooms really as morally urgent as a country that is, as Pete Buttigieg sharply put it, “using technology for the perfection of dictatorship?” This is a worldview that encourages companies to take cost-free stands on the progressive cause of the moment and do absolutely nothing to uphold fundamental progressive values when doing so requires more sacrifice than the time it takes to write up a news release. A worldview that fails to force companies like the N.B.A., Apple, Google and Disney to account for the fact that they are serving as handmaidens to totalitarians is not one worth taking seriously.
The longstanding conventional wisdom on China — that engagement and investment by America in China would inevitably lead to the country’s political liberalization — has simply not proven true. This is the chestnut Adam Silver himself insists on, when he speaks about the possibilities of “basketball diplomacy.”
Alas, just the opposite has happened.
China has become more repressive the more it has engaged with the West. Meantime, that economic engagement has led major Western businesses and institutions to keep quiet on a major moral issue of this century. The N.B.A.-China partnership is just one example of so many in which Beijing is calling the shots.
Real political wisdom on this score lies with the creators of “South Park,” who, having offended China with an episode this week, dunked on the N.B.A.’s cravenness.
“Like the N.B.A., we welcome the Chinese censors into our homes and into our hearts,” said Trey Parker and Matt Stone in a statement. “We too love money more than freedom and democracy. Xi doesn’t just look like Winnie the Pooh at all. Tune into our 300th episode this Wednesday at 10! Long live the Great Communist Party of China! May this autumn’s sorghum harvest be bountiful! We good now, China?”