Sometimes it takes a swift kick in the gut to assess where we are, why we do what we do, and what we should be doing going forward. For sports fans in Georgia, we’ve been provided ample opportunity.
It was a week that began and ended with embarrassing losses by the Atlanta Falcons. The Braves collapsed in a 10-run game five first inning. Well, at least there’s college football. Channeling my inner Lewis Grizzard, I still don’t want to talk about it.
Wins and losses come and go. Fans jumping off bandwagons will jump right back on when there’s an opportunity to associate themselves with success. Life goes on.
The sports story of the week, that will – or at least should – have lasting implications is that of the National Basketball Association. Specifically, it is the NBA’s Chinese market, and the complete fidelity to China demanded by their ruling party.
The story began with Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey tweeting his support of Hong Kong protesters. It would likely have never been noticed here or there had the response from supporters of China’s communist government not completely overreacted.
The escalation was swift. South Park, Comedy Central’s animated cartoon, skewered not only Chinese censorship, but the companies that have clear double standards with regard to freedom of expression depending on to whom they are trying to sell their wares.
Disney took a hit in the satirical show for their willingness to tailor big budget motion pictures toward acceptability to China’s market. South Park, is said to be banned in China, including references in social media.
The stakes for the NBA and others are huge. Bloomberg estimates that 800 million people watched an NBA game in China last year. That’s roughly two-and-a-half times the entire U.S. population.
That market extends beyond the league itself. Basketball fans like to buy the sneakers that their players wear, so much so that Nike CEO Mark Parker said in the company’s September earnings call that “Nike is a brand of China, for China, and the results continue to prove it out.”
Nike has taken an interesting approach to political controversy in America, actively featuring former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick in an endorsement deal. Kaepernick is best known for leading protests during the playing of America’s national anthem. “Of China, for China” adds a different context to this debate.
The same can be said for Disney’s ESPN franchise, which has spent the last several years focusing on divisions within society more than divisions between the competitors that their viewers tuned in to watch. With the NBA controversy, ESPN is taking a remarkably different tact. Reuters reports that ESPN’s Senior News Director issued a memo forbidding discussion of Hong Kong, demanding anchors “focus on the sports angle instead.”
The NBA and Disney haven’t been strangers of weighing in on political issues right here at home. Disney has been active in opposition to Georgia passing Religious Freedom laws which they have deemed discriminatory. The company has a much higher threshold for what they find unacceptable abroad.
Then there’s the owner of the Atlanta Hawks, who was more than happy to weigh in on Georgia’s heartbeat bill – calling the measure “political malpractice.” While he urged the US to “lower the amount of noise” in trade talks with China during that same interview, he – like most other NBA owners that are seeing franchise values skyrocket at least in part on increasing Chinese viewership – has been quiet on China’s NBA censorship issue.
Sports in America has long been viewed as an opportunity to unite all of us across a broad spectrum of demographics. We’ve been divided over questions of “foreign influence” for a couple of years, with both sides skipping debate and going straight to their pre-determined conclusions that support their politics.
Now, we have a case study staring us in the face of direct foreign influence that is perfectly legal, exerted by a government using economic channels. As we move on from a horrible week in Georgia sports and back to debating things that matter, we need to have a serious conversation over what, and who, we are cheering for.