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The Sports World Isn’t Handling this NBA/China Thing Well

As the situation between China and democracy protesters in Hong Kong continues to boil, the sports world hasn’t been immune from the hotbed of controversy.

Over the weekend, Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey tweeted his support for the Hong Kong protestors, a tweet he has since deleted after the Chinese Basketball Association broke its ties with the Rockets – one of the most popular NBA teams in China – and several Chinese businesses have distanced themselves from the team.

The fallout from the Morey controversy has revealed that, even though the sports world has waded into political waters too many times lately, they’re not handling this issue terribly well.

Take a look at ESPN’s handling of the issue. Reporters and analysts have gone so far as to criticize Morey for the tweet, but they haven’t talked about why he said what he did on Twitter. They haven’t looked at the issue in a fair or substantive way, and Deadspin says they know why.

This could be because Chuck Salituro, the senior news director of ESPN, sent a memo to shows mandating that any discussion of the Daryl Morey story avoid any political discussions about China and Hong Kong, and instead focus on the related basketball issues. The memo, obtained by Deadspin, explicitly discouraged any political discussion about China and Hong Kong. Multiple ESPN sources confirmed to Deadspin that network higher-ups were keeping a close eye on how the topic was discussed on ESPN’s airwaves.

I wrote not too long ago about ESPN’s CEO Jimmy Pitaro and his admirable decision to steer clear of politics except where it directly intersects with sports. Laura Wagner at Deadspin points out that, if there was ever a point where sports and politics met, this is it, yet ESPN isn’t even providing correct context when they report on the situation in Hong Kong.

This particular story fits with Pitaro’s definition of politics and sports overlap, and yet ESPN execs still felt the need to send out a “stick to sports” mandate in order to guide coverage. The only question that remains now is whether they did so because Pitaro has narrowed the window for when ESPN is allowed to talk about politics even further than he had previously stated, or because ESPN is worried about pissing off Tencent, the massive Chinese internet company that it struck a deal with in 2016.

Is ESPN worried about angering Chinese sponsors – just like the NBA – or are they trying too hard to avoid the politicization of sports that they’ve overdone in recent years?

Then there’s Steve Kerr. The Golden State Warriors coach hasn’t been afraid to wade into politics, particularly when he can go out of his way to criticize President Trump, the GOP, or conservatives in general. But when reporters asked him about Morey and the protests in Hong Kong, he was practically speechless.

It’s really not that complex a situation. People in a semi-autonomous part of China are expressing their desire for freedom, and China is demonstrating why it has such an abysmal record on human rights. The complex part is that China pumps plenty of money into the NBA, and even the league’s personnel only see dollar signs.

Kerr has talked frankly about the right of black athletes to protest, but he goes silent and awkward when he’s asked about the right of the people of Hong Kong to stand up for their freedom. He usually doesn’t pass up a chance to grandstand, so maybe Travis is right when he calls the coach a “coward” for not standing up for liberty in Hong Kong.

Meanwhile in Philadelphia, the 76ers played the Guangzhou Loong Lions in an exhibition game on Tuesday night. Two fans decided to stand up for Hong Kong with signs and chants of “Free Hong Kong.” Security threw the fans out.

Bear in mind that this incident didn’t take place in China. This was in Philadelphia, where the First Amendment protects free speech. It’s absolutely insane.

The NBA and ESPN are too dependent on China and the money that flows from it to do the right thing. Free speech and quality news coverage take a backseat to avoiding offending China. At the same time, the people of Hong Kong want a measure of freedom, and the Chinese government is cracking down, often violently.

Both ESPN and the NBA should be ashamed of themselves. American sports fans deserve to know the truth, and people like Morey should be able to express their solidarity with those who seek liberty. To side with China over the Hong Kong protestors – potentially at their expense – does a disservice to the people of Hong Kong and to Americans who deserve to know the truth.

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