The dark side of that Hong Kong Tweet

I am a skeptic by nature. And I love a good conspiracy theory. I want to be upfront about that. But there is something uncomfortable about the latest Twitter storm involving the NBA. I can’t help but play devil’s advocate. So let’s just try to connect the dots.

Your biggest Western Conference rivals are on their way to China. Led by the face of social consciousness and player empowerment. The team they’re playing there has a new Asian franchise owner—first in the NBA. And the player-friendly Commissioner has made that market a priority for international expansion. One of the most influential media organizations in the sport is there to cover the events.

Enter weaponized Tweet. Now you’re daring your rivals and not-really-friends in the league and media to speak up for freedom — while in China as foreign visitors!!! In contravention of local law. For which there could be harsh consequences. Daring LeBron to speak out in support of the Hong Kong protesters and risk being detained for fomenting social unrest. Alternative: be tagged as the sell-out who values $$$ over human rights or thinks only Black lives matter, not Asian ones. And the Nets’ Asian franchise owner is in big trouble with the authorities if he even hints at supporting That Tweet. For him the repercussions could be very severe. Lets hope they don’t detain his family and sanction or nationalize his company. As for the Commissioner—you’re not so progressive now, are you Mr Silver. Fans will turn on you as the Twitter recriminations pile on. And the player-promoting journalists also on that trip: will they speak out or cave to censorship, facing public backlash as pacifiers? As it all unfolds, the power will shift, imperceptibly perhaps, back to the front office. Win-win-win for the GM all around. And in the video-game version of events where the fallout rises to the level of the NBA’s biggest star landing behind bars in PRC martyrdom: imagine the global social impact! Because we all know if the Rockets don’t win this year, some might begin to wonder if the front office isn’t that brilliant after all. Score another one for the GM. Well played. Well played.

Are we really expected to believe this GM cares deeply about Hong Kong, the protests, or what is really happening there? Or that his stand is commensurate with that of Colin Kaepernick? It’s just too easy to post a Tweet like that from the comfort of your office when it’s not you or your players on a flight to Shanghai.

This was a cold, calculated, cynical, self-serving attack on much of what is progressive, inclusive and democratic about the NBA. And it was a cowardly one. Holding up the mantle of freedom fighter to deflect attention from the core agenda of divide, disrupt, destroy. The crescendo of freedom tweeters calling for democracy, denouncing censorship and rebuking selling-outs for cash conveniently drowns out the hum of the laser burning holes into everything this GM despises about the NBA in 2019. Progressive Commissioner—vaporised. Too-big-for-his-Nikes activist player—zapped. Asian franchise owner—microwaved. Tamperers-turned-title-pretenders the Lakers—delivered up to be roasted in China. Too-influential media organization—scorched. Enjoy your travels there all, drown out the boos, duck when the projectiles come flying at you from the stands, and don’t say, text or post anything controversial!

Sorry, I struggle to believe that an experienced and savvy NBA executive, adept at navigating the complex and nuanced space that is salary caps, trade deadlines and free agency, was oblivious to the very real potential consequences of his post. Delivered just as the first Asian-led team and his own team’s biggest rivals headed to China, his ill-timed Tweet has compromised so many people on so many levels. People who were travelling to China with the aim of promoting dialogue, collaboration and sport under the unifying umbrella of the NBA. Can one Tweet really sabotage it all? Is this tampering on a new cyberwarfare level?

I am not at all presuming to suggest that the freedom-fighting GM actually intended any of those travelling to China this week to come to harm. But did he have their backs? Did he exercise good judgment? And did That Tweet and the false narrative it created do anything to promote a de-escalation of the situation in Hong Kong? Who in Hong Kong, concretely, did it help? What constructive resolution of that crisis did it propose? The risk-reward seems pretty skewed. Maybe the GM intended to promote solidarity. But his Tweet has created a vast rift where previously there was a bridge.

Freedom without responsibility—what is it really worth? Perhaps this is a moment for introspection for all of us, no matter what our view of this particular Twitter firestorm.