Remember that ESPN is owned by Disney, and that China is willing and able to punish a parent organization for criticism by its subsidiary. It’s not just Houston Rockets games that have been banned from Chinese airwaves over Daryl Morey’s pro-Hong-Kong tweet, after all. It’s the entire NBA preseason.
So imagine what the consequences might be for Disney’s operations in China, starting with access to Chinese movie theaters for Disney films, if ESPN began applying a little of its famous wokeness towards China’s regard for human rights.
Some network employees are playing dumb about any change in the network’s coverage of this subject…
…but Deadspin has the goods in the form of a memo sent to staff by ESPN’s senior news director urging them not to delve into details about the dispute between China and Hong Kong. Congrats to the network, I guess, on finally discovering a political topic that it doesn’t want to opine on.
The memo doesn’t ask staff to take China’s side in the Hong Kong debate but, wouldn’t you know it, according to Deadspin much of the commentary thus far has been critical of Morey and scrupulously neutral on the sensitive subject of whether Hong Kongers deserve basic due process rights.
If you paid attention to ESPN channels yesterday, you saw the network repeatedly attempt to grapple with the story of Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey creating an international incident after tweeting and then deleting his support for pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong. You heard talking head after talking head castigate Morey for sending the tweet, speculation over whether he’d keep his job, speculation about the sincerity of his convictions, discussions about what this meant for the Rockets’ bottom line, the observation that it’s unreasonable to expect for-profit companies like the NBA to act morally, and the non-take that cowing to China is simply the cost of doing business in China…
Chuck Salituro, the senior news director of ESPN, sent a memo to shows mandating that any discussion of the Daryl Morey story avoid any political discussions about China and Hong Kong, and instead focus on the related basketball issues. The memo, obtained by Deadspin, explicitly discouraged any political discussion about China and Hong Kong. Multiple ESPN sources confirmed to Deadspin that network higher-ups were keeping a close eye on how the topic was discussed on ESPN’s airwaves…
Any summary of the tensions between China and Hong Kong is going to be necessarily reductive, but a summary of what’s actually going on at least provides basic context for the rest of the discussion. The idea that Chinese politics are simply too complex to talk about on sports TV just isn’t convincing.
ESPN has toned down its on-air politicking over the past 18 months after justified complaints from righties that the network had adopted a conspicuously “woke” identity. Too much politics, not enough sports, viewers claimed. Jemele Hill, their most outspoken host, was moved off the SportsCenter desk and the network’s president vowed to stick to the thing that ESPN became famous for in the first place. But there was an exception to that policy: Obviously, some sports stories do involve politics. If the network is going to cover Colin Kaepernick’s collusion grievance against the NFL, for instance, it has to discuss the claim that he’s been blackballed for refusing to stand during the anthem.
The NBA’s quagmire in China is a textbook example of that sports/politics intersection, notes Deadspin. If you can’t cover Kaepernick’s legal battle with the NFL without discussing the underlying details, how can you discuss the NBA’s standoff with China without addressing the merits of Morey’s pro-Hong-Kong tweet? Political context is crucial to letting viewers decide which party is in the right, which depends in part on their assessment of the righteousness of the cause in Hong Kong. Did Morey say something so egregious that China, and the NBA, are entitled to be angry with him, and the Rockets to fire him? Or is China trying to censor an anodyne expression of support for a pro-democracy movement, aided and abetted by propaganda pushed by American corporations that fear loss of access to the Chinese market?
If American sports figures are being unjustly pressured to genuflect to Chinese communist sensibilities, that seems like a story. I wonder why Disney-owned ESPN, which also happens to have a deal with Chinese tech leviathan Tencent, isn’t eager to tell it.
At Slate, Tom Scocca says it’s time for the NBA to pull the plug on China. It’ll only get worse from here, not better.
The message of a spiel like Tsai’s is that foreign institutions can coexist with the Chinese government on mutual terms of respect, as long as those institutions honor the boundaries around China’s nonnegotiable sensitivities. The truth, though, is that those boundaries are constantly moving. Ever since the 2008 Beijing Olympics, which were supposed to celebrate China’s full integration into the international order, the government has been aggressively tightening the limits, confident that the terms of engagement mean foreign entities will have to go along—whether it’s a matter of putting Communist Party officials onto university boards, or stifling news coverage of leadership’s self-enrichment, or censoring a movie, or removing apps from the Chinese market…
China has already played its hand. If Hong Kong is nonnegotiable, there’s nothing to discuss. The subject will become more sensitive, not less, if the Hong Kong police move from tear gas and rubber bullets to the routine use of live ammunition, or if the People’s Liberation Army moves in. Would the NBA muzzle its employees then? Would the players and staff of a globally prominent American company censor their own feelings to protect the Chinese market? Why not take the stand before it gets to that?
If you want a firsthand look at how pitiful ESPN’s coverage can be, go watch the Deadspin video of Stephen A. Smith ranting yesterday — not about Chinese human-rights abuses, not about the NBA groveling and risking cooptation by a totalitarian state in the name of making a buck, but about Morey’s alleged selfishness in not thinking of the Rockets’ bottom line before tweeting. Coming soon to the Stephen A. Smith Show, I presume: The Uighur menace. Could it happen here? Stay tuned.” Ironically, one person who has acquitted herself well in all this is — ta da — Jemele Hill, who has a piece at the Atlantic today taking the NBA to task for its hypocrisy. If the league is going to speak up in defense of NBA players’ right to protest social injustice, she insists, it needs to speak up in defense of Daryl Morey’s right to do the same. Indeed.