Over the past few years, under the watch of Commissioner Adam Silver, the NBA has encouraged its players, coaches and executives to speak up on political and societal issues. In turn, the league has positioned itself as a self-appointed bastion of progressivism.
But I bet the league wishes that Rockets general manager Daryl Morey had "stuck to sports" when he logged onto Twitter on Friday.
Morey's now-deleted tweet in support of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong has created a legitimate international crisis – one that shines a light on both the NBA and China's real values.
Silver and the NBA might have fumbled around at the start of this controversy, but their stance is now clear: they are not going to apologize, nor will they sanction Morey for his post.
All that stuff about being politically progressive? Well, it seems they meant it.
"We are not apologizing for Daryl exercising his freedom of expression," Silver said this week in Tokyo. "I understand there are consequences from his freedom of speech and we will have to live with those consequences."
China wants the NBA to kowtow. Silver, in his statement, made it clear that will not happen.
And that's going to prove extremely problematic for him and his league going forward.
Because China does not forgive.
What we have now is a standoff between China and its most popular sports league, which earns billions annually from that market, arguably its fastest-growing. It's going to require all of the NBA's diplomatic power and built-up goodwill to overcome, but even then, the damage might be irrevocable.
One of the NBA's goals is to "promote the game worldwide," as to increase international revenue streams. Over the last few years, though, that has really meant promoting the game in China. The plan was working.
Last year, per the league, more than 800 million Chinese watched NBA programming. The league has a deal with Tencent worth perhaps as much as $1.5 billion, and recent polling has the NBA the most popular league in China, ahead of the English Premier League and UEFA Champions League.
Much like major Hollywood movie studios, the league views the Chinese marketplace as a vital part of their business. The NBA has 13 official partners in China – 11 of those companies have suspended or ended their relationships with the league in recent days, per CNN.
If that money goes away permanently, that's a not-so-inconsequential piece of the league's pie.
Remember: Silver works for the NBA's owners, and they have shown – time and time again – that they are only interested in things that make them more money. Things like expansion in the second-largest economy in the world. And ethics don't really come into play in such circumstances – ethics are things people with less money complain about.
And you should never forget that China is a totalitarian government that has the full power to eradicate the NBA from its citizen's collective consciousness.
If you know anything about how hardline China is with anything having to do with Taiwan, then you understand their playbook here – there's no room for compromise with these guys, you either acquiesce or become an enemy for life.
So if the state says that the NBA is blacklisted, it is gone, and everyone will fall in line or face severe and in many cases criminal consequences. The NBA can go from the most popular game in China to verboten in an afternoon.
So far, the state has not made such a declaration, but they haven't assured anyone that they won't, either. State-run TV announcing that it won't broadcast preseason NBA games is a warning shot – Chinese companies are now getting their ducks in a row for the effective end of the NBA in the country.
And another comment – by a player, coach, or executive – could be the one that brings about that break. Hence Warriors coach Steve Kerr and star Stephen Curry – neither of which have ever had any issues speaking on political issues before – dodging the subject in recent meetings with the press.
"He was like a little boy, he was so scared.... He was shaking," Donald Trump said of Kerr Wednesday, because of course Donald Trump had to get involved in this, as if it wasn't already messy enough. "He didn't know how to answer the question,"
Oh, he knew how to answer – he just wasn't looking to get fired.
Curry had reason to avoid, too. The effects are already being felt by players – the lower class in this scenario.
Not only do stars like Under Armour's Curry, Adidas' James Harden (who has already made an embarrassing public statement, effectively supporting the state), and Nike's LeBron James sell their shoes in China, they market them, directly, with summer tours of the country.
In recent years, Chinese apparel companies – Anta and Li-Ning chief among them – have come to the U.S., snagging NBA All-Stars to be their brand endorsers worldwide (but mostly in Asia).
But Anta has already announced that it will not negotiate new contracts with its NBA athletes. Klay Thompson's deal with the shoe company runs to 2026, but my understanding is that there is a buyout clause in the contract and Anta might feel compelled to activate it, should that word come down from on high.
Yeah... this scenario is tense.
Maybe this all blows over. Maybe Silver and the NBA can win the state back.
But the fact that things have escalated this far over something that we in the States find to be so benign – well, that's hardly encouraging.