Common Cents & The NBA on October 25, 2019

In case you might have missed it, there is currently a brouhaha in the NBA (National Basketball Association) over a tweet Houston Rockets’ GM Daryl Morey posted on October 4, 2019. In it was an image with a caption which read: “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.” Let me repeat: there is currently a brouhaha in the NBA (National Basketball Association) over a tweet Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey posted on October 4, 2019. In it was an image with a caption which read: “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.” You read that correctly. These are sensitive times in which we live, am I right?

As Lee Corso might say, “not so fast, my friend.”

You see, the NBA does big business in China, and the Chinese are notoriously persnickety when it comes to outside criticism, or any other form of criticism for that matter. As a result, whether bots or paid troll mobs did so, criticism rained down on Morey and the NBA from China, the Chinese, and Chinese apologists. So much so, Morey, the NBA, and numerous star athletes in the NBA have either apologized for the tweet or expressed some form of solidarity, real or implied, with Beijing.

Not surprisingly, numerous outlets (and individuals) have heaped scorn on those whom they deem have appeased and/or overlooked Chinese aggression due to the NBA’s presumed greed. The optics being those that stand to make the most money by keeping the Chinese government happy have ‘folded like a tent’ to keep the money flowing. It is unseemly to place greater importance on profit than the personal liberties of the Hong Kongese.

To be sure, it would seem so, or one would hope it to be thus. Then, there is the core issue for most Americans: who is the [heck] is Daryl Morey and why does anyone really care what he thinks about the protests in Hong Kong, or anything else for that matter? Seriously. Prior to this, I would not have been able to give you the name of the Rockets’ GM without looking it up even if my life depended on it. I would have told you: “Not a chance. I would like a bucket of fried chicken and a bag of Cheetos for my last meal, if that sort of thing is permissible.”

So, why do the Chinese care so much? To quote Lord Tennyson: “Theirs not to make reply, Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do and die.” In contemporary parlance you might say it doesn’t matter, they do. In business terms, you could also say: “the customer is ALWAYS right, even when they aren’t.” There you have it.

Personally, I don’t watch the NBA very much, no more than maybe, maybe, an hour a season. That includes all games and all teams. I don’t care a fig about the Houston Rockets, and only know James Harden is on the team because he makes a lot of headlines on ESPN. In truth, the NBA could vanish tomorrow and it wouldn’t impact my life in the slightest. So, I don’t care what the GM of the Rockets says about Hong Kong. I am ambivalent about all things Adam Silver, the NBA commissioner. The political opinions of any professional athlete are of miniscule importance to me. I don’t have a dog in this particular hunt. The list, my list, goes on and on.

However, and this is where the rubber meets the road, if you want to do business in a particular country and/or culture, it is in your best interest to adhere to the local mores. If you upset the local powers that be, be prepared to accept the consequences. If you are either unwilling or unable to do these things, by all means, make the business decision to exit that market. While the devil is always in the details, it really is that simple.

You want to do business in China? You play by Chinese rules. If you like Chinese money more than you dislike the rules, you play the game, literally and figuratively as the case may be here. If the inverse is true, you don’t have to do business there. However, this decision has to be made PRIOR to entering the Middle Kingdom. If you decide to ‘go to China,’ rule #1 is to zip the lip when it comes to politics. That includes everyone, especially members of management…any management of any type. Just shut it. People in the US don’t really care what you have to say about Chinese political protests, and the Chinese don’t want to hear it.

If you want to do business in France, don’t make jokes about The Battle of France during World War II or the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. They don’t think it is funny, and it isn’t. In Russia, you don’t make fun of or otherwise criticize the central government. You have never been able to do so, and you never will. Know that. In the Middle East and much of Asia, you simply don’t touch or shake hands with a female unless she extends her hand first, if that. Informality and directness are considered impolite, boorish even, throughout Asia. In much of Europe, do NOT discuss business until your host initiates the discussion. Drinking heavily with a business client is acceptable in Russia and much of Asia, even if there are rules about the protocol. Conversely, drinking simply isn’t done in many Arab countries, at least not in public. In the United States, you should be punctual for a business meeting. In Latin America, this just isn’t as important. In Thailand and even Spain, lese majeste (an offence against the dignity of the monarch) can land you in jail. Many countries have state religions and official languages, which we famously don’t have. Oh yeah, no bubblegum in Singapore; no bacon in Israel, and no beef in India.

At the end of the day, when the smoke clears and the dust settles, the business decision to enter a market is just that: a business decision. Once a company or enterprise does so, it has to play by the local rules, whatever they may be and however ridiculous they might seem to Americans, even abhorrent.

That last point is important: there are a lot of brutal cultures and governments in the world. Our society, and level of openness, is more the exception than the rule. If we were to condemn every multinational US company which bent to local customs, well, we wouldn’t have very many multinational US companies. Just because it “sells in Peoria” in a particular way doesn’t mean it will in Dhaka or Kampala or New Delhi or Vientiane or Seoul or Moscow, etc.

With this all said, IF you don’t like how the NBA (and may of its stars and officials) wilted in the face of Chinese criticism to the tweet by Morey; IF you don’t like the fact the NBA likes Chinese money more than it dislikes Chinese rules; IF you think it interesting the NBA is more sensitive about toilets in North Carolina than repression/brutality in Hong Kong and China, let me ask you to do something: don’t support the NBA. Don’t watch it on the TV; don’t go to a game in person; unfollow anyone associated with the NBA on social media, and don’t buy any merchandise. ‘In this regard, don’t be “Like Mike. No, be “Like Norris.”

The NBA will get the picture, or should, and we can move past being outraged over something as innocuous as a tweet by some dude in Houston that organizes basketball games, or something along those lines.


Have a great weekend.


John Norris

(Please note: the opinions and comments in this newsletter are mine and mine alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of Oakworth Capital Bank or any other of its directors, officers, or shareholders.)