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Sports & Politics: Does China Rule Corporate America?

When we are just fans discovering a new sport that evidently breathes fresh air into our interests, we often disregard all of the potential “political” ties the sport may have had. Everyone is aware and content with the idea that sports and politics mesh together, but nobody likes to dig deep and uncover these connections to unravel how tight-knit they truly are. It’s not because people are trying to hide the associations between the two, it’s that they’re too indifferent to care. People understand the concept of politics being a part of sports, however what they fail to grasp, is how important these connections truly are, as well as how significant the impact of politics could be on major sports organizations that are based specifically in the United States.

China have historically been a huge money-maker for American based organizations and committees that seek international growth and notoriety. The amount of people in China who invest their time, money and effort into contributing to the growth and success of American based organizations and groups, are substantially higher than any other international contributor to the U.S. The laws and right may differ but the passion for sports are incredibly similar to that of North American fans. The Chinese have long loved and been main contributors to the growth and success of many organizations worldwide, however perhaps none larger than the support they have built for the National Basketball Association. China has long attempted to build on the increasing support of basketball by adding some televised games and approving the sale of merchandise. However in 2002, the Chinese basketball scene evolved as Yao Ming was drafted #1 overall by the Houston Rockets, making history as China’s first NBA star player.

As one can imagine, the support was like a tsunami. The Chinese embraced their home-grown star which was a given, however more interestingly they showed even more support to the team he played for. Houston saw a large surge of Chinese fans becoming regular watchers and supporters of the Rockets. Houston benefited profusely from drafting the Chinese superstar, which was evident when the highest selling NBA jersey in China was not Ming, but his superstar teammate, Tracy McGrady. This showed NBA executives and owners how valuable the Chinese market could be. The fans were not only supporting Yao, but they were also huge fans of the Rockets’ culture and brand. After Ming retired in July of 2011, the Chinese remained loyal to the Rockets for the most part, but some acquired other teams and still continue to support them proudly. If you invest in their market, they will invest in yours wholeheartedly, for generations, which is what occurred in Houston until very recently when Rockets GM Daryl Morey shared a tweet signifying his support for the Hong Kong protests that have been happening for quite some time now.

The protests derive from generations of China and Hong Kong budding heads as
the latter have long intended to separate from the former. The uncertainties, disagreements and lack of civilized discussion has resulted in an all-out “mini war-zone” in China between protesters and police. A country of more than a billion people, divided over an incredibly sensitive topic where everyone involved thinks that they’re the one with the correct solution. Politics reminds me of a bunch of people you can call “executives”, bickering to each other in a dangerously small room. It’s much more complex than all that but it still summarizes the essence of politics. Important people in tight suits with large pointy shoes each trying to outwit the other to secure their own desires and interests.

Politics is like a big massive snowball that gets bigger the more it rolls. When it’s only in its inception it will consume fragments of snow until it’s large enough to topple anything over and consume it as well. No matter the field or position, politics rears its unwanted head in almost everything. It exists in everything yet nobody can identify it until its put forth in front of their faces. That’s because many people may find politics boring and fickle, but how can something be fickle and boring, yet consume everything in the World at the same time? How can a concept exist in almost everything we know, but nobody can notice a trace?

Perhaps Morey was not aware of the “politics” that would ensue once he decided to tweet his support for Hong Kong whom are at war with China, while being General Manager for a club that is incredibly well-known in China, that comes from an organization (NBA) whose largest market by far, is China. You can see where the discrepancies can cause some political tension. China, who are already going through a frustrating time being on the Global forefront for their mini civil war with Hong Kong, reportedly felt betrayed and taken back by the way Morey (an associate of the Rockets & NBA) tweeted his support for Hong Kong in their quest for freedom. Several Chinese stations, channels and personnel immediately denounced the actions of Daryl Morey and expressed significant displeasure.

There is no question perhaps Daryl Morey should have probably kept his opinion on a large international political issue to himself, however, he exercised his first amendment right for freedom of speech and went ahead with it anyway. However what followed, was truly the most intriguing part. Rockets owner, Tilman Fertitta as well as the NBA released statements individually denouncing the Rockets’ GM and disassociating their organizations with his opinion. Some may perceive this as basic protocol by the NBA to use some “damage control” methods in order to kill any tension. But why kill “tension” on a topic that shouldn’t be a problem to begin with. Why are the NBA and its owners so reluctant to express any of the glaring issues and irregularities within the Chinese political system? Why does a simple tweet that shows support for freedom efforts require one of the biggest organizations in the World to ask China for forgiveness? Shouldn’t we be fair to everyone’s opinion, regardless of their social status? Unfortunately, the answer is no. Everything we say or post holds weight. For some that weight is as light as a feather, for others it holds tons.

Perhaps China wouldn’t have cared if some person with a thousand followers tweeted out their dissatisfaction with the Chinese government, but for it to be GM of the Houston Rockets makes things a tad more serious. However the question remains, why did the NBA and Fertitta feel it was necessary to issue an apology to China for someone else expressing their opinion about a global issue? That’s because China provides more growth, notoriety, money and attention to the NBA than most other markets combined. If the NBA loses even half the viewers and buyers from their market in China (that still happens to be growing) it would cause massive issues for the NBA. China has been a major marketing and brand exposure hub for not only the NBA, but some of its biggest stars. Athletes like Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James are just some of the NBA’s megastars who benefit substantially from their market in China. That’s right, as complex and odd this story is, the root of it is that of many politically complex stories; acquiring a substantial amount of money. More significantly, it’s money that nowhere else can provide because nobody else has access to that many people in one nation who utterly love sports, especially basketball.

Thus the politics ensue with one man expressing a truthful opinion and his bosses having to apologize for him due to sensitive relationships that include billions of dollars potentially being won or lost, over an opinion supporting freedom. It’s an odd scenario but nonetheless pretty straightforward. The NBA cannot afford to lose the Chinese market. The money and growth that they receive from their market is way too valuable for them to lose over Daryl Morey’s opinion of freedom, which prompted them to disassociate themselves with the opinion almost immediately. For the Chinese this didn’t change much, as they proceeded to announce that NBA games that we’re scheduled to play on television will no longer be aired. With that, the NBA decided to release another statement, explaining how they can’t refrain people from using their first amendment rights, and therefore wont penalize Morey.

Only time will tell how this incredibly intriguing political sports story will develop. This is not any regular issue for the NBA regarding doping allegations or a racist owner. This is about the largest market in the World at odds with one of the largest sports organizations on Earth about a tweet that supports Hong Kong’s fight for freedom by a Texan. It’s fascinating and confusing at the same time, but THAT is exactly what politics is in its nature. I along with the rest of the basketball world will be watching to witness whether this issue will be quickly taken care of and dissolved in the file cabinet of “close ones”, or if this one tweet was the seed that significantly damaged one of the pillars of global sports. Only time will tell, but for now we wait and observe this incredible story.

-Maiyo Shahrawan

Toronto Talks Sports