October 15, 2019 - 5:45pm

Last week there was some kerfuffle when Daryl Morey, general manager of basketball team the Houston Rockets, tweeted in reference to Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests “fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong“. He was forced into a partial retraction of this comment following a furious reaction from Chinese basketball fans and backers, though the NBA subsequently appeared to stand by Morey.

Then, Lakers basketball hero LeBron James poured burning oil on already-troubled waters with an ambiguous comment, in which he appeared to row back from supporting freedom of speech in favour of a more collectivist stance:

We all talk about this freedom of speech […] but at times there are ramifications for the negative that can happen when you’re not thinking about others […] I don’t want to get into a […] sentence feud with Daryl, but I believe he wasn’t educated on the situation at hand, and he spoke. And so many people could have been harmed, not only financially, but physically, emotionally, spiritually. So just be careful what we tweet, what we say, what we do, even though yes, there can be a lot of negative that comes with that.
- LeBron James

James subsequently qualified these comments by stating that his remarks referred to the impact of Morey’s tweet, not its content. That is, he was commenting not on the wisdom or otherwise of supporting Hong Kong’s protesters but on the negative consequences for NBA players and business in general of speaking up on the subject.

It is difficult to see how this makes his remarks any less striking. If American culture is the vanguard of American soft power, its preferred delivery mechanism for those quintessential values of freedom, individualism and merchandise marketing is arguably sport. In this light, this debate for Chinese sensibilities is evidence of a worrying new phenomenon.

With soft power transformed into lucrative markets, and these markets at risk, the lever of what was once soft power is reversed and American sport becomes instead a vector for the importation of Chinese viewpoints and values into American discourse.

Expect more of this as Chinese spending power and cultural self-confidence continues to grow.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.