Speaking with TIME magazine, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver excused the league’s chummy relationship with the government of Communist China, saying, “We think exporting NBA basketball to China and to virtually every country in the world continues to fit within our mission,” adding, “I do think that in order to bring about realistic change, we have to build relationships.”
TIME asked Silver, “What’s the state of the NBA’s relationship with China?”
“We continue to televise our games in China,” Silver answered. “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.”
Bobby Burack of Outkick commented, “Silver says it’s the NBA’s ‘mission to improve people’s lives through the game of basketball.’ Really? The NBA is so concerned with improving lives that its top players are cashing checks from two Chinese sneaker companies, Li-Ning and Anta, that proudly profit from Muslim slave labor.”
Silver continued, “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,” Silver stated. “Working with Chinese solely on NBA basketball has been a net plus for building relationships between two superpowers.”
Asked if his perspective was too “Pollyannaish,” Silver replied, “I don’t want to overstate it. While I’m a believer in soft power, I’m certainly not sitting here 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.”
“I do think that in order to bring about realistic change, we have to build relationships,” he insisted. “At the end of the day we’re all human beings. And while there are many differences between our society and Chinese society, there are enormous commonalities as well. One of them is to love a sport. And basketball happens to be the most popular team sport in China right now. We think that through that common love and appreciation of the game of basketball, that that’s a way to bring people together. It’s as simple as that.”
TIME wondered about Silver’s reaction to critics who note that the NBA’s players voiced their opinions vociferously regarding Black Lives Matter issues and police violence, but remained silent vis-à-vis China.
Silver said weakly, “My response there is that we and our players speak about issues that are closest to home. Our players have the absolute freedom to speak off the floor about any issue they want. I think it was a unique set of circumstances that led us to talk about Black Lives Matter over the course of last summer.”
In October 2019, while pro-freedom activists demonstrated in Hong Kong, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted, “Fight For Freedom Stand With Hong Kong.” That prompted the Communist Chinese government to sever ties with the Rockets, and the NBA’s Chief Communications Officer Mike Bass to release the following statement:
We recognize that the views expressed by Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey have deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China, which is regrettable. While Daryl has made it clear that his tweet does not represent the Rockets or the NBA, the values of the league support individuals’ educating themselves and sharing their views on matters important to them. We 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.