The NBA has again found itself in the middle of a debate over free speech and cultural appropriation, this time in a development that is threatening to widen a rift between the league and China.
The league issued a statement late on Friday denying allegations that it attempted to silence commentators who voiced criticism of president Xi Jinping’s comments following a visit to the United States by Donald Trump. This comes as a topic that both on the American and Chinese markets has not been published since Xi’s diplomatic trip to the US this month.
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The NBA did not mention the Chinese market but did say “certain comments of these analysts” had been “used by a foreign country against our players, coaches and staff. We strongly oppose any form of behavior or expression that is inconsistent with the NBA’s respect for everyone regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, gender or sexual orientation.”
China is a lucrative one for the NBA. Last year, it generated $145m in revenue from the league and its broadcasts alone, an improvement on the $145m earned in 2015, according to marketing news website Sport Witness. The NBA’s most important revenue from China is through a deal with CCTV China, but western NBA teams are allowed to represent themselves in China.
Some commentators interpreted the ongoing dispute as a sign of how far cultural appropriation has gone during the Trump administration, with US culture increasingly perceived by Chinese audiences as antithetical to their own political values.
Dennis Wise, an ESPN commentator whose show has aired regularly on CCTV, said on Twitter: “The western world’s abject surrender to mainstream liberalism made possible by powerful sociopaths, is the tragedy of China’s freedom of expression.”
On Monday, Chinese-born journalist Sally Hogshead, now based in New York, appeared on a celebrity chat show, Million Dollar Drop, where she was asked if it was fair for the Chinese to watch Chinese-American basketball players play the US because of US domestic issues. The answer she gave was: “It’s not.”
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The league responded with a statement, saying “it’s not a call for censorship, but for greater and stronger dialogue on the topic of free speech and cultural and racial sensitivities that are part of every cross-cultural dialogue.”
It continued: “The NBA values its relationships with foreign partners in a way that’s consistent with our values and reflects our commitment to diversity and inclusion. China is an important global market and the best way to build our business there is through co-operation and open communication, not threats or ultimatums. We will continue to work with the Chinese league and with our partners in China to maintain and grow our collective business in China.”