The Faustian Bargains of the Woke NBA

Staff members clean the court floor before an NBA exhibition game between the Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Lakers at the Mercedes-Benz Arena in Shanghai, China, October 10, 2019. (Stringer/Reuters)The massive Chinese audience may guarantee short-term profits, but at what price down the road?

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE T he nba should be delighted. Its once American sport is now globalized. Its talented players, who have redefined the very game itself, are the best by far in the world.

Many have become cultural icons, and a few are now billionaires. Indeed, the players are very rich, the owners far richer. The league’s geniuses weigh in with lectures on culture and politics. And the NBA’s public relations are Machiavellian in their ability to make corporatism seem hip.

That said, a number of proverbial NBA chickens are coming home to roost.

No one quite knows how much money the National Basketball Association, its individual teams, and the players all make off playing, and merchandising their multifarious brands, in China.

Some estimates suggest that the NBA’s various Chinese markets reach $6 billion in profits and more — not surprising, given 1.4 billion new potential consumers.

No wonder the league is touchy about its huge China investment.

When last year Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey mildly objected to Beijing’s crackdown on democratic Hong Kong, he was pilloried by widespread criticism from the league, the players, and other coaches — on the prompt of the Communist Chinese themselves. The Americans all seemed terrified about losing their newfound lucrative markets.

Shortly after, San Francisco Warriors coach Steve Kerr offered a pathetic, Walter Duranty–like defense of China, ludicrously suggesting that its terrible human-rights record was no worse than America’s episodic tragedies of deranged shooters: “People in China didn’t ask me about, you know, people owning AR-15s and mowing each other down in a mall. I wasn’t asked that question. . . . There’s this and that issue. The world is a complex place, and there’s more gray than black and white”

In mentioning AR-15s, Kerr was perhaps referring to the 2019 record of mass shootings in the U.S., the worst in history — at 211 deaths attributed to private individuals troubled by mental-health issues, family disputes, drug deals, gang violence, or school rampages.

Again, Kerr and the profit-minded NBA should get woke to the Chinese Communist government’s official state policy, which has put more than 1 million Uighur Muslims in reeducation camps. It is destroying democracy in Hong Kong in violation of its past international agreements. Beijing has all but eradicated the indigenous culture of Tibet.

China violates almost every canon of international commercial law and trade. It has bullied all of its Asian neighbors and insidiously expanded its intrusions into their air and sea space. More than 140,000 Americans have died from COVID-19 — a virus that mysteriously originated in China and spread globally, killing well over 500,000, entirely due to Chinese laxity and deceit.

Beijing’s “Belt and Road Initiative” is a throwback to the 19th century’s colonialism and imperialism. Dissidents don’t go off Twitter in China; they more often just disappear.

This growing NBA–China nexus couldn’t come at a more embarrassing time for the league.

During the COVID-19 epidemic, the national quarantine, and the demonstrations, violence, and cultural revolution that has followed the death of George Floyd, the NBA has not been shy about political activism. Players, coaches, ex-players, and obsequious sports writers have all virtue-signaled the nation about America’s supposed sins.

Indeed, part of the NBA woke/hip/cool/edgy brand is to trash the “establishment” that has ensured the foundations of its multibillion-dollar-empire. In scary marketing fashion, NBA players, current and retired, and their acolytes in popular culture have veneered their 1950s-style corporate fealty with woke talk about BLM, the “Jews,” eugenics, Farrakhan, and the usual totems of “resistance.”

Their basic message for young consumers is that you can hate the man and still wear $400 sneakers — the same way that you can wear a jersey with an edgy logo during the game and then retire at night into your Malibu compound. In the spirit of medieval indulgences, paid to help the sinner enter heaven, the more that the players become corporate cut-out pitchmen, the more they voice left-wing boilerplate to square the circle of being privileged rich people who nonetheless cling to street cred for the sake of advertising.

No one knows how long this 30-year disingenuousness can continue. It may come to a head this fall, when the league will soon deal with some players’ plans to kneel during the national anthem next season. The NBA has approved of individual players wearing politicized slogans on their jerseys — politicized in the sense of trashing the U.S., but not offering an ill word about Chinese Communist atrocities. The message is, “Ridicule your own democracy all you want, but censor your incorrect thoughts about racist and totalitarian China.”

Joe Fan at home is supposed to watch all this and say, “That’s right! We sure do need more multimillionaires to trash of our flag, anthem, and country! Sign me up for more cable ESPN.”

In other words, the NBA and lots of its players are both athletes and social activists — but with very selective agendas, given that the league is as critical of America as it is silent about China’s monstrous behavior. During the COVID-19 epidemic, few NBA players noted that Chinese businesses were turning away African students and workers, as the government singled them out for forced COVID-19 testing.

The hypocrisy over China has become a touchstone for lots of long-known but taboo subjects in the NBA. Despite all the virtue-signaling about diversity, the league, like the NFL, is one of the most nondiverse institutions in America. 

Of its 30 owners, only three are nonwhite. Yet over 75 percent of the players are black, raising the quandary of who are the most non-diverse — the athletes or the owners?

In fact, both. Those from 65 percent of the population own 90 percent of the franchises, while athletes from just 12 percent of the population make up 75 percent of the players. Excuse the silly reductionist number crunching, but this is 2020 America, and we are all supposed to follow the rules of those who made the rules. After all, we have been lectured by the woke nonstop for decades on the need for proportional representation — if we are to prevent insidious microaggressions that are de facto exclusionary. And one reason that a once-staid NBA developed a national audience over the past 70 years, and radically widened its appeal and fan interest, was that it belatedly integrated an all-white league in the early 1950s, became diverse, and won over millions of new fans.

The progressive theories of disparate impact require no proof of overt bias to ascertain systematic prejudice, and they allow no mitigating circumstances such as the fossilized construct of “meritocracy.” A postmodern university diversity coordinator might speak of it all this way: “Who is to say that the “standards” that the NBA “constructs” to adjudicate so-called talent are not themselves “socially embedded within a discriminatory and nondiverse system that is predicated on perpetuating the asymmetrical dominance of white owners and black players?” Nonsense? Of course, but it’s the sort of nonsense that now governs diversity in America.

Latino players make up just 1.8 percent of the league athletes, while Asian players less than 1 percent; the two groups are now near 20 percent of the U.S. population. Under our campus and government guidelines, for example, something is terribly wrong, and someone needs to do something about these volatile asymmetries.

The average NBA player makes nearly $8 million a year. Star LeBron James is worth over $450 million. The NBA is one of the most elite, exclusive, and coveted professions in America, where players de facto become multimillionaire celebrities — on the theory that pure merit, not race, determines who wins these most-sought-after billets. Again, that is nearly the opposite mindset from that of an Asian-American straight-A, 800-SAT student assuming that by merit she should get into Yale, and thereby “overrepresent” her race in the Ivy League, at the “expense” of other “excluded” groups.

So add up all these divergent facts, and there emerges an inconvenient NBA modus operandi. The hyper-rich players occasionally moan that a mostly white ownership controls mostly black players, while their supporters often invoke plantation imagery, channeling Bryant Gumbel’s now decade-old jibe that, during a player lockdown, former NBA commissioner David Stern acted as if he was a “modern plantation overseer.” A few years later, former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s overt racism, at least in one case, bore out Gumbel’s rant.

The mostly white owners nod that they must do something someday about this owner imbalance. No one dares to say that the progressive players themselves do not care much for the progressive admonition of “looking like America.” And then everyone lives and lets live, to make lots of money.

Money is certainly at the center of these contradictions. For the NBA brand, it seems to make much better business sense to routinely damn democratic, diverse, and free America, but not the racialist, Communist, and outlaw China. The former’s audience is changing, touchy, and shrinking; the latter’s is uniform, predictable, and growing.

Wokeness has lost some market share inside the U.S., but such perceived anti-Americanism helps to win it back — and more — in China. Beijing, of course, sees anti-American-sounding American athletes as high-profile useful idiots — a fact no doubt known to the receptive players and coaches of the NBA who willingly and sincerely play their parts.

No wonder the NBA is so secretive and defensive about its China hypocrisies. The league’s domestic attendance and viewership are now flat. Its various affiliated TV audiences last year dived. TNT’s NBA viewership dropped 22 percent; ESPN, 19 percent.

Last year game attendance was off as well. The league claims all sorts of reasons for its inert viewership, except the fact that its hard-left social activism and players’ pop philosophizing did not always play well with many of its traditional fans.

The demography of NBA fans has also radically shifted. It is now nearing 50 percent African-American. That is encouraging on the one hand but on the other reveals a reliance on a demographic that makes up only 12–13 percent of the U.S. population. In other words, for corporate accountants, there will soon not be enough American fans, viewers, and consumers to sustain the astronomical growth in salaries and expenses in the NBA.

The NBA has become the only major professional sports league with less than 50 percent white viewership, an often poorly defined demographic that still may make up nearly 60–70 percent of the population. Latino and Asian NBA audiences are likewise not expanding much.

Someone from Mars might suggest that the African-American audience is increasing because 75 percent of the players are African-American, and the overall audience is shrinking because other ethnic groups are vastly underrepresented in the league — and on occasion some may feel excluded by the league’s messaging.

Translated, that means that some groups are occasionally the targets of jibes from the players, as we have seen from their periodic anti-Semitic and anti-Asian slurs. Former NBA stars Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Charles Barkley recently deplored the anti-Semitism among black athletes, and the league once worried about the racism directed at then NBA player Jeremy Lin. Two years ago, superstar LeBron James posted some rap lyrics on his Instagram account (which had 45.9 million followers): “We been getting that Jewish money, Everything is Kosher” — followed by his sort of defiant apology, “Apologies, for sure, if I offended anyone.”

When it comes to diversity, the NBA then is facing some of the same challenges hitting much smaller nondiverse sports, such as golf, hockey, and swimming — but with important exceptions. None of these mostly white sports earns so much money for so many; none were ever as mainstream as basketball, football, and baseball; and few of their athletes lecture America on its sins, in fear of turning attention to their own nondiverse sins and foibles.

There are now two solutions for the NBA to expand its audience to meet the enormous overhead of the multimillion-dollar yearly salaries of their players and keep churning out mega profits for the owners.

The league could both diversify and depoliticize. The NBA might recruit more minority-owned franchises.

And it certainly might try mentoring and bringing in more Latino and Asian-American players, to make the league look more like America — in alignment with popular doctrines of diversity, which the NBA is oddly not shy of showcasing despite its own errant status.

With less political hectoring and virtue-signaling, the NBA could also win back more traditional viewers of all backgrounds. What a strange country in 2020 when the Oscar awards come under fire for not proportionally representing all Americans, but the NBA remains exempt from the same logic of diversity and inclusion.

Or, alternatively, if the league wishes to remain politicized, with a leftish message at odds with half of America, and if both the ownership and the players hardly wish to reflect the rich diversity of America, it can seek to find greater audience share — in fact, much greater — elsewhere in China.

Presto — and so it has.

No wonder that coach Steve Kerr, or superstar Lebron James, or gossip sports writer like Adrian Wojnarowski (who in hip street fashion recently tweeted to Senator Josh Hawley “F*** You” for daring to point out hypocrisies in the NBA’s stance toward China) are so hair-triggered about any mention of a racist, imperialistic, colonialist, and genocidal China. The NBA corporate-media borg collectively believes that China can sustain a business that, at least under its current business plan and operating assumptions, may not be sustainable in its present incarnation in America.

But the NBA should be careful.

The Chinese, unlike Americans, don’t like dissent. You can’t write a snarky “F*** You” to a provincial Communist minister.  And the pro-Chinese, anti-American boilerplate is not negotiable — ever, given that it is one reason why the Chinese so like the NBA itself.

The Chinese themselves are invested in racial chauvinism, not the cultural tapestry of diversity.

But most of all, they are harsh belt-and-road paymasters who demand a Faustian bargain from all they make rich in the short term. The story of Chinese courting of American industries over the last half-century is that China lures them in with promises of big money, partners with them, rigs the arrangement, xeroxes their expertise, dumps their partners, and then absorbs their markets.

In other words, NBA China may make the league money now. But we are in a new COVID-19 world, where no one believes that China will democratize once it gets rich enough, and China itself has mostly given up on hiding its own agendas.

So, given the known Chinese blueprint of foreign investment, assume that once China masters the mechanics and public relations of the sport, the contours of its franchising, and the intricacies of its branding and merchandising, its 1.4 billion people may prefer their own Chinese players, Chinese coaches, Chinese owners — and all of their own newfound Chinese profits.

NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Case for Trump.

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