By TERRY LYONS, Editor-in-Chief
NEW YORK – Leadership is very important. It can set a tone and form the foundation for every business, every town, every government entity – whether it be a State in the Union or the executive branch. Leadership is noticed most at times of crisis, and in those tough times, its absence can be catastrophic.
In professional sports, the National Basketball Association has strong leadership. Always has, and always will. Dating back to its early days when the likes of Maurice Podoloff or Walter Kennedy guided the association through its toughest times to the days of Lawrence F. O’Brien, who worked his magic in the world of Massachusetts or U.S. politics and parlayed that to become league Commissioner as the NBA faced tumultuous times in the mid-1970s, the NBA has weathered the storms.
The crossroads of the NBA in the 1970s by way of the Oscar Robertson settlement agreement placed the league and its players on solid ground for the very first time, alleviating a costly war with the American Basketball Association (ABA) and absorbing four of its franchises while settling its Collective Bargaining Agreement with the NBA Players Association of which the strong-willed Robertson was its President.
O’Brien passed the torch to his General Counsel (who had been promoted to Exec Veep) David Stern in 1984 and Stern, known to most in sports as the single best Commissioner (of any sport) in history, ran the playbook to take the NBA from a relatively small Ma & Pa organization to a global powerhouse. It was in Stern’s tenure, the NBA worked arduously to cultivate the fan-base in China, ranging from the NBA-China Friendship Tour in 1985 to the first ever official NBA China Games in 2004 to the opening of “NBA China” to crowning moments at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.
It was a long, solid, uphill climb and when Stern passed the torch to current NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, the league was best positioned to take full advantage of the global consumer while cultivating basketball players growing up bouncing a ball and tossing it through a hoop, rather than kicking it around a field.
While Podoloff, Kennedy, O’Brien and Stern faced challenges – sometimes tough and beyond your worst nightmares as a business leader – none of them face the challenge Silver faces everyday of his tenure.
You see, Adam Silver must run the National Basketball Association in the age of Social Media. While Stern dabbled in the medium and encouraged its use and exploitation for NBA business and promotion purposes, it is Silver who is left to manage the NBA when disaster is only a click away. Silver faces a firestorm of backlash and criticism every time a team owner (see Donald Sterling), a player (see 100s of examples), or a team executive (see Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey open an App and crack wise or unwise on the electronic citizen band shouting machine, known to most as Twitter.
Such is the case as Morey decided to take world politics and the political unrest of Hong Kong and China into his own grubby hands to tweet Friday night, “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong,” wrote Morey on his Twitter feed for the world to see.
That simple statement created the single biggest political controversy the NBA has ever endured, but it wasn’t Silver’s first.
Silver’s leadership chops were tested mightily just as he became Commissioner and LA Clippers team franchise commodore Donald Sterling was exposed by his ill-intentioned GF as being as racist as Archie Bunker at a lodge meeting. That was just after Stern had anointed Silver with the magic of running a league with jet engine aspirations but fueled by human beings, some old and stupid (franchise owners) and some young and inexperienced.
Silver stepped up, as strongly and as determined as any sports executive in history, to settle the Sterling disaster with one full swoop. Sterling was dismissed from the NBA forever and Silver was praised by all – mainly the NBA players and legions of people who were simply proud to be associated with the league, now captained by a man who stood for being on the right side of major social issues.
However, one thing became very clear as the ABC World News Tonight and CBS Morning News took to the airwaves on Monday, October 7, the NBA was in the unenviable position of being at the base of a hurricane of controversy on a topic that has no upside. Human Rights Violations have no redeeming quality in this world, no matter where you live, no matter what your political stance might be. But severe human right violations, while categorically abhorrent, are practiced by governments everywhere, including the use of the death penalty in some U.S. States and some pretty unfair prosecution practices resulting in longterm jail sentences for minorities – many wrongly convicted – for minor drug violations.
Silver set a tone and it has carried the NBA mightily during his relatively newfound commissionership. He stepped up again on Tuesday, October 8 to do what he does best, lead the league and set the tone:
“I recognize our initial statement left people angered, confused or unclear on who we are or what the NBA stands for. Let me be more clear,” started Silver in a statement issued just before he held a press conference to meet the issue head-on.
“Over the last three decades, the NBA has developed a great affinity for the people of China. We have seen how basketball can be an important form of people-to-people exchange that deepens ties between the United States and China.
“At the same time, we recognize that our two countries have different political systems and beliefs. And like many global brands, we bring our business to places with different political systems around the world. But for those who question our motivation, this is about far more than growing our business.
“Values of equality, respect and freedom of expression have long defined the NBA — and will continue to do so. As an American-based basketball league operating globally, among our greatest contributions are these values of the game.
“In fact, one of the enduring strengths of the NBA is our diversity — of views, backgrounds, ethnicities, genders and religions. Twenty-five percent of NBA players were born outside of the United States and our colleagues work in league offices around the world, including in Beijing, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Taipei.
“With that diversity comes the belief that whatever our differences, we respect and value each other; and, what we have in common, including a belief in the power of sports to make a difference, remains our bedrock principle.
“It is inevitable that people around the world — including from America and China — will have different viewpoints over different issues. It is not the role of the NBA to adjudicate those differences.
“However, the NBA will not put itself in a position of regulating what players, employees and team owners say or will not say on these issues. We simply could not operate that way.
“Basketball runs deep in the hearts and minds of our two peoples. At a time when divides between nations grow deeper and wider, we believe sports can be a unifying force that focuses on what we have in common as human beings rather than our differences.”
With that statement, Silver re-emphasized the NBA’s resolve to “let the players PLAY,” whether they’re bouncing basketballs on the court or lobbying their political or social viewpoints off the court, and that applies to those holding front office positions and, thus, fully associated with the “NBA Family,” as Silver put it.
Also with that statement, Silver chose the right for Morey to voice an opinion over the league’s business P&L sheet in China. Silver’s decision lobbed a backhand to the Chinese government and the many Chinese-based businesses the NBA licenses its products or content to in every region of China.
I understand there are consequences from his freedom of speech and we will have to live with those consequences.”Adam Silver, NBA
One controversial opinion might cost the NBA a $1.5 billion deal for streaming rights, and other billions of revenue in sporting goods, events, consumer products, and licensing – all born over three and a half decades of hard work and relationship building.
Golden State Warriors President Rick Welts, the strongest of leaders in the NBA, brought the topic back down to earth when he appeared on CNBC Monday afternoon.
Welts was quoted just as the storm of controversy, emotion and opinion was at its highest point and he noted, “This will pass, and I do think our future in China is probably pretty remarkable.”
He added the league muffling opinions about the democracy movement (anywhere but in this case) in China is “not going to happen,” because that is “not what the NBA is about, it’s not what our leadership is about. When we put this in perspective six months from now it’s not going to look as big as it’s looking today.
“What I can tell you for sure is it’s not going to erase the decades of work that, you know, myself and everyone else in the NBA has put in in building a tremendous base for basketball in China, and I think this will pass. And I do think our future in China is probably pretty remarkable.”
A wise man, Welts, certainly defended the league and sport he loves, but framed the conversation in civil terms and without pushing his particular opinion. His sage remarks proved worthy of his place as a leader in the league, but also as a leader to help guide and ground everyone he comes in contact with, no matter the topic of basketball or business or civil rights.
On the contrary, several politicians chose other courses of action, all incendiary, self-serving, ill-willed, poorly thought-out and counter-productive.
First, there was the esteemed Senator from Texas:
Then, we had the U.S. Senator of Florida:
Then, the esteemed Senator of Missouri:
As you see, Hawley went the furthest and the farthest off the rails in his irrational response to the issue. His call for “the NBA to cancel all exhibition games in China, ‘pending a peaceful resolution to the crisis in Hong Kong,” is unrealistic and childish. Calls for boycotts and “taking the ball and going home,” don’t work.
At the risk of following such an un-productive “what aboutism,” my considerable research did not find the call for halting Missouri State University Study Abroad in China tweets or actions by Senator Hawley, nor did he, Cruz or Rubio step-up to criticize President Trump’s “Happy 70th” to China less than a week ago. But, enough is enough.
When the dust settles, there are many important take-aways from this controversy.
On Social Media: Think before you Tweet. (Think about the consequences that might occur from each and every message conveyed on social media).
On Issuing Statements: Don’t rush to judgement and action to issue a “written statement.” Fully assess the situation and take the time necessary to fully understand the consequences – analyzing all sides and every possible result. Issue the statement only on your own terms, not in reaction to others.
Third Party Endorsement: Is it possible to have a “third party” intervene on your behalf to broker a better or intended result? If so, pursue it and publicize the mutual agreement or compromise.
This Too, Shall Pass: Welts’ viewpoint is spot-on. Back in 1999, when a US feed B-52 bomber misfired and leveled the Chinese embassy in (former) Yugoslavia, CCTV and other Chinese government entities shut-down all commerce with US-based business, and the NBA “magically” disappeared from the Chinese airwaves. After months of bravado and positioning, the NBA was gradually repositioned much to the demand of the authorities’ own desire to see the games (which were soon to feature the likes of Wang Zhi Zhi, Mengk Bateer, and Yao Ming (2002).