Adam Silver Can’t Explain Away the NBA’s Cozy Relationship with China

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Security personnel at the venue that was scheduled to hold fan events ahead of an NBA China game between Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Lakers, at the Oriental Sports Center in Shanghai, China, October 9, 2019. (Aly Song/Reuters)

National Basketball Association (NBA) commissioner Adam Silver is among those rarest of things: a political-science major making a lot of money. A lot of money — around $8 million a year, in fact. There’s not a single congressional staffer or journalist or operative with that same degree who isn’t jealous of Silver’s financial success. There’s also not, for those who’ve read Silver’s recent interview with Time, a single one who’s not haunted by the question: How did he do it? Because as a trained talker with the task of representing a sport, Silver embarrassed himself in what was supposed to be a flattering piece about the league. Asked about the state of the NBA’s relationship with China, Silver responded like this:

We continue to televise our games in China. Our most significant television partner is Tencent, which is a streaming service in China. And we have hundreds of millions of fans in China who we continue to serve. I’ll take a step back there and restate the NBA’s mission, which is to improve people’s lives through the game of basketball. And we think exporting NBA basketball to China and to virtually every country in the world continues to fit within our mission. The political science major in me believes that engagement is better than isolation. That a so-called boycott of China, taking into account legitimate criticisms of the Chinese system, won’t further the agenda of those who seek to bring about global change. Working with Chinese solely on NBA basketball has been a net plus for building relationships between two superpowers.

Were I a spokesman being asked a general question about my organization’s cozy relationship with a genocidal regime that uses concentration camps, rape, and forced abortions to persecute a religious and ethnic minority, I might refrain from opining about what does and does not constitute legitimate criticism of that regime. I might also, even if I rejected the idea that there was a moral imperative to boycott it, not be dismissive of those who do advocate such a course of action.

Moreover, if I were a freshman hoping to pass an introductory international-relations course in the political-science department, I might refrain from relying solely on buzzwords and phrases such as “engagement is better than isolation.” What kind of engagement? And toward what ends? In a follow-up answer, Silver says he’s not “claiming that by virtue of televising NBA games in China lo and behold, there’ll be a reckoning in China to adopt a Western point of view about human rights.” But, he insists, “I do think that in order to bring about realistic change, we have to build relationships. At the end of the day we’re all human beings.” Again, that kind of answer would be better received while passing around a bong in the dorm, rather than as any kind of serious argument in the classroom or public sphere.

Legitimizing the Chinese Communist Party in any way is morally unjustifiable, and Silver is almost assuredly ashamed of doing so for his employer’s, as well as his own financial profit. Watching him flail while trying to pretend there’s some kind of real benefit to the world, or to the Uyghurs suffering in Xinjiang, would be delightful if it weren’t so sad, and leaves you wondering if the NBA is getting its money’s worth.

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