The vice president accused the league of “siding with the Chinese Communist Party and silencing free speech.”
“Some of the NBA’s biggest players and owners, who routinely exercise their freedom to criticize this country, lose their voices when it comes to the freedom and rights of other peoples,” said Pence. “In siding with the Chinese Communist Party and silencing free speech, the NBA is acting like a wholly owned subsidiary of the authoritarian regime.”
The NBA-China controversy began with a now-deleted Oct. 4 tweet from Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey supporting Hong Kong protests against the eroding democratic rights of its semiautonomous government under Chinese rule.
In response to the tweet, an NBA spokesman released a statement via Weibo, one of China’s largest social media platforms, in an attempt to soften blows.
“While Daryl has made it clear that his tweet does not represent the Rockets or the NBA, the values of the league support individuals educating themselves and sharing their views on matters important to them,” chief communications officer Mike Bass wrote. “We have great respect for the history and culture of China and hope that sports and the NBA can be used as a unifying force to bridge cultural divides and bring people together.”
Pence took issue with that response, but he wasn’t the only one. Other politicians on both sides of the aisle had concerns, among them President Donald Trump, who accused coaches of “pandering” to China.
According to NBA commissioner Adam Silver, the league has suffered a “fairly dramatic” financial loss as a result of the controversy, with many Chinese partners severing ties and consumers vowing to boycott.
The issue could also have ramifications for Nike, the league’s exclusive on-court uniform purveyor, which Pence criticized for staying publicly silent on the NBA-China conflict.
“Nike promotes itself as a so-called social-justice champion, but when it comes to Hong Kong, it prefers checking its social conscience at the door,” Pence said.
While Nike has portrayed itself as a progressive brand at home, championing causes like Black Lives Matter, it has not spoken up on the China issue. The conflict presents challenges to the Swoosh’s business, as Nike is the leading athleticwear brand in China, with a 22.1% market share, according to a 2016 Euromonitor report. The company has seen double-digit revenue increases there in 21 consecutive quarters, with 27% growth in the third quarter.
But being somewhat “circumspect” on China could be the right move for Nike, explained Matt Powell, VP and senior industry adviser at The NPD Group
“The consumer has told us that they want brands to take visible stands on social issues. They’ve made that very clear. And while there is some risk in the U.S. of brands taking a stand — because not all consumers are going to agree with them — if they understand their own consumer well, they’re going to support stances their consumer supports and [likely end up successful],” Powell told FN. “But when you get outside the U.S., it gets murkier.”
FN has reached out to Nike and the NBA for comment.
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