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China poses problems for Biden, NBA

What do President Joe Biden and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver have in common? They both have problems with China.

To be precise, Silver and Biden have issues with the Chinese government, rather than with the more than 1 billion people who live in the People’s Republic.

Of course, their troubles are for different reasons and have different causes. If you were paying attention to Biden’s town hall meeting in Baltimore last week, you know what his immediate problem is: He dared to challenge the Chinese government’s desire to place a stranglehold over Taiwan.

Of course, American leaders have done that for more 60 years, but Biden, in his shoot first and worry about the consequences later style, said the quiet part out loud, thus ticking off the folks in Beijing.

Silver’s dilemma is that the out loud part, that Chinese leader Xi Jinping is a murderous thug, got said out loud.

The problem for Silver is that he didn’t say it, but one of the NBA’s 450 players did. As a result, the league’s tenuous relationship with China got a bit more strained. Last week, Enes Kanter, a reserve center with the Boston Celtics, tweeted out a video calling Xi a quote brutal dictator unquote while throwing his personal support behind the Dalai Lama and the people of Tibet.

Kanter, a Turkish native, called on Beijing to free Tibet from Chinese control, saying quote "Under the Chinese government's brutal rule, Tibetan people's basic rights and freedoms are non-existent."

Kanter, of course, isn’t wrong. The Chinese Communist government under Xi has made a cottage industry of repression and viciousness towards all who live under the Five-starred Red Flag in all corners of the nation, including annexed areas like Tibet.

The Chinese see sports as a means to integration into the broader world culture. They’ve particularly glommed onto basketball and the NBA as a sport of choice.

To wit, Tencent, a Chinese-video streaming site, immediately pulled the plug on livestreaming Celtics games, while Weibo, a Chinese social media platform, announced that it would not post updates on Boston games. The NBA pulled in nearly $1.5 billion in sponsorship deals last season and brought in over $8 billion in total revenues the previous season. The latter figure was reportedly down 10 percent from the 2018-19 season.

Part of that drop has been attributed to a reaction from China when then Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey took a public stance supporting freedom for the people of Hong Kong.

Chinese television blacked out NBA games following Morey’s 2019 comments and there are many who believe that the league, which makes somewhere in the hundreds of millions or perhaps billions in China, has just recently managed to patch things up with Beijing.

And that’s why Silver has, to date, been silent on Kanter. The commissioner is in a no-win situation. He can’t silence the Celtic, but he can’t congratulate him either, though he should. To be fair, Adam Silver isn’t alone among sports figures who turn a blind eye to Chinese brutality. In just a few months, the International Olympic Committee, for instance, will host the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing, 14 years after the Summer Games were staged there.

Seems that freedom often takes a back seat to commerce. Let’s see if free speech loses too.

And that’s how I see it for this week.

Get in touch:

Twitter: @SportsAtLarge

Email: [email protected]

Milton Kent hosted the weekly commentary Sports at Large from its creation in 2002 to its finale in July 2013. He has written about sports locally and nationally since 1988, covering the Baltimore Orioles, University of Maryland men's basketball, women's basketball and football, the Washington Wizards, the NBA, men's and women's college basketball and sports media for the Baltimore Sun and AOL Fanhouse. He has covered the World Series, the American and National League Championship Series, the NFL playoffs, the NBA Finals and 17 NCAA men's and women's Final Fours. He currently teaches journalism at Morgan State University.