Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey is one of those people who enjoys being interesting on the internet.
Most sports executives avoid the internet like it’s contagious. Because it is. It gets into your lizard brain and turns sensible people insensible.
Morey likes to tweet about the Houston Rockets, and football, and Donald Trump, and all sorts of other things. He is amusing in that way people are amusing on the internet – a lot less than they seem to think.
The Rockets are currently in Japan getting ready to play the Toronto Raptors in preseason games. Presumably, this put Morey into a contemplative mood as it pertains to goings-on in Asia. On Friday night, he tweeted a slogan of the protest movement in Hong Kong: “Fight for freedom; stand with Hong Kong.”
China – the angry focus of that movement – didn’t take that so well. China does a lot of business with the NBA. It especially does a lot of business with Morey’s Houston Rockets, since the greatest Chinese player in history, Yao Ming, played there.
How this displeasure was expressed is unclear, but whatever it was worked. Morey’s tweet was deleted before most people could register it. Then things started to get bad.
Let’s file this one with the Department of What Exactly Did You Think Would Happen?
Presumably, Morey has gotten used to the modern American style of protest. You say something milquetoast and self-righteous on social media; all your friends on the internet pile in to tell you you’re a Great Hero of the Revolution; and your enemies shake their pretend fists and call you names. It works equally well for both sides of the debate.
However, nothing ever actually happens. In America (and Canada), most current political battles are virtual and fought between elites. None of these people ever meet each other. If they did, they’d end up making an unlistenable podcast called “Bridging the Divide” or something just as vapid.
Elsewhere in the world, they take principled stands rather more seriously, because out there hard words often turn into hard action.
This is where Morey miscalculated. He thought he was screaming into a friendly void. But somebody heard his challenge and decided to swing back, for real.
By Sunday, Morey was in disorderly retreat. In two further tweets (that read like they were written by artificial intelligence developed by the U.S. State Department), Morey tried to have it both ways. He was sorry and not sorry simultaneously. Mostly, he was under-informed – the new hiding place of official types who are taking fire.
“I was merely voicing one thought, based on one interpretation, of one complicated event,” Morey wrote. “I have had a lot of opportunity since that tweet to hear and consider other perspectives.”
Presumably while they were being screamed down the phone at him by an actual, live person who does not spend a lot of time on Twitter, but does understand how business works. To whit, you don’t rag on your partners in public.
The thing about principled stands is that they are hard to do while on your knees. If you feel strongly enough about something to announce it to a huge crowd of people (Morey has 215,000 Twitter followers), you might reasonably be expected to back it up once challenged.
But no one expects that any more, because we all realize most people don’t think before they speak on social media. That’s what the internet is for – thoughtlessness.
It would be too embarrassing for the Rockets to sack Morey now. He’ll spend the next few months professionally bleeding out. Once everyone’s forgotten he did this, then the Rockets can toss him overboard. For basketball reasons, of course.
Pour a bottle out for another victim of the internet. He died as he had lived – meming.
There’s little that’s noteworthy in that. But what should not be forgotten here is the NBA’s calculated reaction.
The league has set itself up as the United Sports Resistance of America. Leveraging their human assets (i.e. the players), they’ve made a nice little side business out of protest. But it is the very American kind – the sort that involves no real blowback and doesn’t mean you can’t be friends with the other side. The front rows of an NBA game are rammed with exactly the sort of plutocrats you’d think the resistance should be targeting.
The same players who talk a big game on Instagram aren’t running over to scream in their faces at halftime. Because all these people are in the same club – the extremely rich people club.
Once confronted by someone from the same club who doesn’t play by those same rules, the NBA folded.
Morey suddenly discovered that clubbing people in the streets involves “other perspectives” (unless you’re the one getting clubbed, I suppose). Rockets owner, Tilman Fertitta, disavowed him – “[Daryl Morey] does NOT speak for the [Houston Rockets].”
The NBA tried to suck and blow at the same time. For the domestic audience, it’s about learning opportunities and hands across the globe. For the Chinese audience, according to The New York Times, the league declared itself “extremely disappointed in the inappropriate comment.”
So, in summation, the NBA is vocally for democracy, fairness, social justice and progressive causes. Just not ones that involve any financial sacrifice on its part. Once that line is crossed, it’s time for everyone to stop being so lippy.
Regardless of where you stand on the political spectrum, this is a good reminder of a basic truth about corporations – they aren’t your friends.
In the past little while, the NBA had been pushed up higher than the Red Cross in public estimation. It was doing God’s work amongst the lepers. You knew because you’d seen the T-shirt and because LeBron James told you so.
If any good comes of this, it’s deflating the league’s presumptuous and occasionally pompous effort at disguising its own marketing as good works.
The NBA’s business is not the betterment of humankind. Its business is making money. When global expansion is at risk, it will do and say what it has to in order to protect its only core interest – itself.