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The dualism of sport and politics

Source: Illinois Springfield via Flickr

By Harry Clarke-Ezzidio

It is often said that sports and politics should never mix. Sports are sports. Politics is politics. The two should never really intermingle. That’s it. But inevitably the two do mix and, when they do, it always gets attention and causes a reaction. Sports, politics, and free speech all recently came to a head as the NBA and China filled the news agenda.

Whilst in Japan on a pre-season tour, the General Manager of the Houston Rockets, Daryl Morey, tweeted an image in support of those fighting in the pro-democracy protests, the image had text which said ““Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong.” His tweet immediately received backlash as those affiliated with China did not like the tweet. Despite quickly deleting the tweet, the damage was done. It’s important to stress how big of a market China is to the NBA. The NBA themselves, as well as all the teams within the NBA have a lot invested over there, it’s a big market for them with huge potential. There’s a lot of money at stake. So when the tweet came out from a senior member of one of the biggest NBA teams, it did not go down well. Knowing what was at stake, the NBA went into damage-control mode. Owner of the Rockets Tilman Fertitta said that Morey’s tweet was a reflection of his personal beliefs and did not reflect the beliefs of the Rockets themselves. Later addressing the situation himself, Morey stressed that he did not want to offend fans in China. The NBA also responded, aiming to minimise the remarks, emphasising that Morey’s view “does not represent the Rockets or the NBA”, adding that they “have great respect for the history and culture of China and hope that sports and the NBA can be used as a unifying force to bridge cultural divides and bring people together.” The squirming and backtracking is clear as day, it is all to protect the profits. 

China, as expected, didn’t take too kindly to the tweet.

Despite the backtracking and attempted clean-up, the Chinese government immediately cut ties with Morey’s team, the Houston Rockets, along with several of the team’s Chinese sponsors. The Chinese Basketball Association, headed by former Chinese NBA star Yao Ming, who was a star at the Houston Rockets, cut ties too. Whilst Tencent, a platform that streams NBA games in China to nearly 500 million people also ended their business relationship with the NBA. Many weren’t impressed with how the NBA were prioritising profits over standing up for people’s rights and liberty. Presidential candidate Julian Castro remarked that “China is using its economic power to silence critics—even those in the U.S.” Overall, the NBA has received universal criticism from politicians, and people from a variety of backgrounds.

The NBA should be ashamed of themselves, they are prioritising their business interests over the basic human rights of those protesting against the regime in China. Trading basic human rights and freedom of speech for profit is about the lowest thing a company can do. The desperate way in which the NBA have been scrambling to backtrack is laughable. Whilst the Houston Rockets pushed their star man James Harden in front of the press where he clearly gave a forced answer trying to help spare the blushes of the Rockets and the NBA.

Yes, China is a very lucrative market and is important to the NBA, but to profusely apologise for and to try to minimise something that really shouldn’t be minimised (as it’s a very serious issue) or giving an apology just to help line your pockets is selfish and unforgivable.

As much as some people despise it, there is a rich history of sport and socio-political issues mixing and impacting the spectacle. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the United States led a 65-nation strong boycott of the 1980 Olympic Games held in Moscow. Then, four years later, the USSR returned the favour and boycotted the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. Social issues have also been addressed in a sporting context many times before too. During the 1968 Olympic games Tommie Smith and John Carlos – winners of the gold and bronze medals in the 200m – raised their fists above their heads forming the ‘black power’ fist in a silent protest against racism and the discrimination that African Americans were facing at the time in the United States. More recently, American football has been the scene of recent protests, with Colin Kaepernick taking the knee during the American anthem for the same struggles that Smith and Carlos fought for. 

The reality is that as much as people may hate sports and politics mixing, it’s almost inevitable that it’ll happen, because at the heart of sports are humans with emotions, yearnings and urges. Athletes are humans after all and people express their political opinions all the time, whether they’re celebrities, athletes, or the average Joe – whenever people feel like expressing their opinion, they normally will whatever the circumstances. Is it the right thing to do? That’s up to you to decide, but it’s quite hard to object to people peacefully protesting because they’re upset by the fact that people are being unjustly treated. People will feel the need to protest and stand up for what they feel is right, it’s human nature. 

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