“Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.”

In just 40 characters, Daryl Morey, General Manager of the NBA’s Houston Rockets, charged his way into the Hall of Fame for the most commercially costly tweets of all-time, taking a seat next to none other than the Snapchat-tanker herself, Kylie Jenner. Where Miss Jenner’s churlish comments bemoaned the functionality of Snapchat’s latest redesign, Mr Morey’s were rooted in a far more problematic and tangled discourse, the fallout of which will take the NBA many years – and many millions (if not billions) of dollars – to unpick.

When the Obama administration announced their ‘Pivot to Asia’ strategy, there was a universal recognition that the balance of power in the world’s major economies was beginning to shift eastwards. Like many elite professional sports leagues, the NBA was acutely aware of the huge market potential offered in the East, with their footprint in China dating back as far as 1992, and their opening of a regional office in – of all places – Hong Kong.

From this point onwards, the story of basketball in China has been one of remarkable success. Strategic TV rights deals, the rise to superstardom of homegrown export (and Rockets’ hero), Yao Ming, and a rigorous tour schedule that has seen the country host 26 games in the past 5 years have all converged to make basketball the most watched, played and followed sport in all of China (300m Chinese played basketball last year, while 500m watched at least one NBA game).

But a love affair that took decades to build has, in the space of a week, turned sour beyond recognition, with major Chinese sponsors, broadcasters and retailers all pulling the plug on respective obligations to the NBA, effectively cutting off supply of basketball in China and throwing NBA revenues into lockdown. In the words of NBA Commissioner Adam Silver: “The financial consequences have been and may continue to be fairly dramatic.” The ability of the Chinese state to move at such decisive speed and scale throws into sharp relief the response from across the pond, which has been markedly less comprehensive; but then again the line the NBA is trying to tread is considerably more precarious.

What Daryl Morey’s tweet did was open a can of worms in the form of a question that no  expansively-minded rightsholder wants to have: that of principles versus profit. Back home in the States the NBA has won plaudits under Silver’s leadership for having championed a liberal and progressive agenda, boycotting 2017’s All-Star Game in North Carolina over a law that restricted the use of bathrooms for transgender people and empowering its stars to use their platform to speak out on political issues. Actions like these have served as a tonic to the ingrained conservatism of the still-dominant NFL and have succeeded in marking out the NBA as an organisation with a relevance that reaches beyond the court.

In the storm thrown up by the Morey fiasco, however, that quest for relevance is being tested to its limits. Silver’s initial statement drew widespread criticism for appearing to distance itself from Morey’s comments, inviting a line of attack suggesting the league is, as The Guardian put it, “only woke when it doesn’t cost money”. In seeking to douse the flames back home, the Commissioner took to Twitter again to clarify the NBA’s stance on the critical point of freedom of expression:

“It is inevitable that people around the world – including from America and China – will have different viewpoints over different issues. It is not the role of the NBA to adjudicate those differences. However, the NBA will not put itself in a position of regulating what players, employees and team owners say or will not say on these issues. We simply could not operate that way.”

The painstaking effort to protect the NBA’s interests by appeasing both sides of the argument is palpable, however the challenge of reconciling domestic liberties in a market that deals in absolutes is nigh on impossible. The response from CCTV, China’s state-owned TV network, was less diplomatic.

“We are strongly dissatisfied and we oppose Silver’s claim to support Morey’s right of free expression. We believe that any speech that challenges national sovereignty and social stability is not within the scope of freedom of speech.”

With the ball firmly in the NBA’s court, how the Silver administration navigates this issue will provide answers as to the institutional balance of power between their values and their margins. It is a sign of these globalised times that a sports league should require both a domestic and foreign policy, but with so much at stake, the NBA cannot afford another misstep, either at home or abroad. Without satisfying its liberal base, the league has no bedrock; without satisfying China, the league has no springboard for growth. It is a catch-22 that no Commissioner would want to find themselves in, however, such is the cultural tariff attached to entering certain markets.

While Kylie Jenner’s tweet was headline news for a few days, its legacy has left limited cultural impact, save for reinforcing the frightening power of online influencers. The fallout from this global conversation, however, will have ramifications that could define the future of the NBA and sporting exports at large. While Silver may be right in reiterating that sport is a universal language, politics most certainly is not, and, more often than not, it is the politics that pays.

With pro-Hong Kong demonstrations in evidence at this season’s opening game between the Raptors and the Pelicans – which CCTV opted not to show, in a major break from tradition – and CCTV China remaining staunchly resolute in the protests being a ‘third rail’ issue, this is a problem that neither side will either let go of, or agree on, easily. And with major voices in the game like Shaquille O’Neal weighing in on social, it’s not going away.

Ultimately, it comes down to one thorny question – relevant to many brands and sporting rightsholders alike in the modern age: How to reconcile principles and profit?

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