The NBA found itself facing an unprecedented international PR crisis this past weekend after Daryl Morey, an executive from the Houston Rockets, tweeted a message in support of the pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong. The retaliation from the Chinese government was immediate – television broadcasters canceled their contracts overnight, and retailers pulled NBA merchandise from their stores.
In a bid to stop the bleeding, the league quickly scrambled to apologize to the Chinese government and its fans overseas, calling the tweet “unfortunate.” But that hardly helped matters at home. Critics in the U.S. erupted after reading this milquetoast response, with many accusing the league of kowtowing to corporate interests and protecting its overseas revenue streams instead of standing up for civil rights.
Just when the story seemed to have blown over, LeBron James – perhaps basketball’s most famous player and the face of the NBA – held a press conference where he chided Morey for the tweet and implied that the executive was “uneducated” on matters in China.
The backlash to this ham-handed statement verberated throughout both the sports and the political world, with fans and talking heads uniting to denounce James for siding with an authoritarian government. On the streets of Hong Kong, protestors burned Lebron James jerseys in the streets.
The Plight of the Uighurs
One issue repeatedly raised by those critical of China: religious freedom. Although it hasn’t gotten as much media attention as the Hong Kong protests, there are currently 11 million Uighur Muslims living in a de facto police state in western China.
These ethnically Turkic Muslim people have been systematically persecuted by China’s secular government leaders, forced to endure constant surveillance, and warned against practicing their religion. Over one million Uighurs have been placed in “re-education camps,” which sources inside the country have described essentially as concentration camps. Few have been heard from since being detained.
A frequent champion for civil rights issues in the U.S., the NBA is curiously refusing to take a stand on clear instances of injustice in one of its most profitable markets – leading fans and analysts alike to point out the hypocrisy of this deafening silence.
What do you think? Should the NBA be doing more to stand up for civil rights abroad, including those of religious minority groups like the Uighurs? Or are they, as a private company, entitled to decide which civil rights issues to get involved with and which to leave alone?