NBA Commissioner Adam Silver speaks to the media during a news conference at Spectrum Center in Charlotte, N.C., on Saturday, Feb. 16, 2019.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver speaks to the media during a news conference at Spectrum Center in Charlotte, N.C., on Saturday, Feb. 16, 2019. (David T. Foster III/Charlotte Observer/TNS)

It's easy to talk about social and political issues if your audience mostly agrees.

Call it the power of an echo chamber.

Which means that when the NBA brass decided to brand itself as a supporter of the freedom of expression it encouraged among its general managers, coaches and players, the league wasn't risking much. The folks who were likely to disagree with the political opinions of, say, LeBron James or Gregg Popovich, weren't going to be watching or buying tickets anyway - the NBA's fan base leans left-center.

This week, an employee of an NBA team stepped outside the echo chamber. Turns out supporting human rights has a price, even for the most "progressive" sports league in the country.

What the NBA has shown this week is that money matters more than principle. Look at its shoddy treatment of Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey.

At issue is Morey's tweet last week supporting protesters in Hong Kong: "fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong."

Well, the Chinese government didn't like it. Which means Chinese companies who do business with the NBA didn't like it. Which means Chinese citizens didn't like it, or so we're told by the Chinese government.

Whether actual citizens in that NBA-loving country balked is beside the point. They don't control whether games air on television. Media outfits such as Tencent do, a Chinese company that happens to have a $1.5 billion deal with the NBA to air league content.

After Morey's tweet, Tencent announced it would not air Rockets games. And the Chinese Basketball Association, headed by former Rockets center Yao Ming, immediately cut ties with the organization.

In an authoritarian state, these moves were designed to appease the government. We may not like it. But this is China's business.

What's not China's business is how Americans express themselves on Twitter. Or anywhere in the public sphere. Yet China's reaction to Morey's tweet has led to a kind of censorship on American soil.

Consider this quote from Adam Silver, the league's commissioner, who told CNN last year that "I think part of the reason NBA players are more active is that it's been part of the culture of this league for generations and passed down to them ... (the) sense of an obligation, social responsibility, a desire to speak up directly about issues that are important (is) part of being an NBA player."

Those words sound hollow now, especially after the league issued a statement that called Morey's tweet "regrettable," though he wasn't the only one from the league to acquiesce to the Chinese government.

Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta was quick to tweet that Morey didn't speak for the team. And Rockets star James Harden eagerly told reporters that he loved China, and loved playing there.

This isn't to pick on Harden. The shooting guard felt the heat from the team's owner - or governor, as they're now called - and sensed a sudden shift from the league about expressing opinions. Besides, the unease extended far beyond Texas.

In San Francisco, the normally opinionated Warriors coach, Steve Kerr, refrained from comment, saying he wasn't well-versed enough on the subject of the Hong Kong protests. That's fine. Give him the benefit of the doubt.

But he surely sensed the hypocrisy coming from the league and could not have been happy with the way Morey was treated. Still, he stayed quiet.

Conservative politicians took notice. U.S. senators Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Marco Rubio (R-Florida) slammed the NBA for its hypocrisy and for putting media contracts and potential markets above human rights.

In fact, so upsetting was the NBA's response that politicians on the left agreed. Presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Beto O'Rourke issued blistering statements as well.

Both sides are right. China's record on human rights is atrocious. And the NBA wants it both ways: to sell itself as an inclusive, progressive bastion while making barrels of money with the help of an authoritarian regime.

The league isn't the only company facing the conundrum of doing business with China. And perhaps the reaction to the NBA's mealy mouthed response will bring attention to the failed promise of Western capitalism loosening up a totalitarian state. After all, Google, Apple and other companies have been selling parts of their souls for years.

Yet at least those companies haven't marketed themselves as moral watchdogs like the NBA has. Again, it's easy to speak out when a couple of billion dollars aren't at stake. And easy to brand yourself as a beacon of free expression when there isn't fear of losing several hundred million customers.

Well, this week we saw what happened when the NBA stared down that threat. It blinked. Though at least the league realized what its response meant for its brand back home.

Silver released another statement Tuesday:

"I recognize our initial statement left people angered, confused or unclear on who we are or what the NBA stands for. Let me be more clear ... for those who question our motivation, this is about far more than growing our business. Values of equality, respect and freedom of expression have long defined the NBA - and will continue to do so ... the NBA will not put itself in a position of regulating what players, employees and team owners say or will not say on these issues. We simply could not operate that way."

For the several days, though, it did. The league's initial response went against everything it said it stood for. The backtracking in the latest statement from Silver may be sincere and heartfelt. It also may be the kind of cynical, circle-the-wagons reaction we saw from the NFL a few years ago when kneeling during the national anthem began to alienate a large portion of its fan base.

Wherever the NBA-China relationship goes from here, the league lost its high ground to the NFL and every other sports league in our country. In the end, it's always about business. We can safely be certain of that.

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