So says FOX Sports 1 analyst Jason Whitlock, who thinks that the apparel and sneaker company is wielding undue influence in the league’s handling of a recent stir with the communist country.
“Nike’s calling the shots," Whitlock told FOX Business Network’s Neil Cavuto on “Coast-to-Coast.” "It is a much bigger business than the NBA. All of American basketball, from high school to college to the pros, they all answer to Nike.”
Over the weekend, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted in support of the democracy movement in Hong Kong, where for weeks protesters have been clashing with police and one was shot. In the fallout of an angry response from the Chinese government and the state-run basketball league, Morey deleted that tweet and in subsequent posts walked back his view to a more nuanced position but the rift was already made between the NBA and China.
China is a huge market for the NBA, arguably the largest overseas audience for basketball, and the criticism is that the league caved into pressure over Morey’s tweet. Whitlock is a co-host of “Speak for Yourself” on Fox Sports 1 and has been a frequent critic of the NBA’s handling of the Morey's tweet.
It’s a story about really Nike, its dependence on the Chinese market, its dependence on Asian market. Nike dictates – Nike is a $40 billion a year business and the NBA is an $8 billion a year business. Nike is the one telling the NBA we can’t get crossways with the Chinese government and we will acquiesce. And we will shut up, dribble and obey.
The world’s largest nation isn’t just a huge market for the NBA but also for Nike. The apparel and sneaker company wields tremendous influence on the league and globally, something Whitlock said shouldn’t be lost in all of this as Nike did a shade over $5 billion in sales in China last year.
“Look at Nike’s history in Asia, look at how dependent it is on China as a market," Whitlock said. "Every NBA player basically runs to China every offseason to collect money and tap into the shoe market in China. We beholden, and Nike is the leader of this – And Nike is a great American company - but are they answering to America or are they answering to China?”
It all makes for a tense situation as several NBA teams are currently in China for preseason. The NBA has backpedaled on the issue, caving to China’s pressure and issuing retractions and apologies. But it still isn’t good enough.
Chinese television, for example, has canceled the broadcast of all NBA preseason games.
“I don’t think they’ve handled it very well because they’ve boxed themselves by promoting themselves as freedom fighters and social justice warriors,” Whitlock said. “And now the general manager of the Houston Rockets has actually supported people who are fighting for their freedom in Hong Kong and now the league has gone voiceless and the Chinese government has basically told everyone over there ‘Shut up and dribble.’ And they are complying, they shut up and dribbled the basketball this morning. Didn’t talk to the press, aren’t going to make a statement."