In the fallout from Daryl Morey’s tweet expressing support for pro-democracy movements in Hong Kong, the NBA is walking on eggshells when it comes to their business relationships with China. The wrong move for the NBA could result in the loss of millions and millions of dollars after the league has spent the better part of the last two decades building a base in China. And it appears this hyper-sensitivity against upsetting the Chinese government and Chinese businesses has affected two Sixers fans who attended Tuesday evening’s exhibition between the Sixers and the Guangzhou Loong Lions, a franchise of the Chinese Basketball Association. Sam Wachs and his wife were escorted out of the Sixers game after first having signs that read “Free Hong Kong” confiscated.
Christie Ileto of ABC 6 Action News detailed the story:
Sam Wachs and his wife were holding signs in support of Hong Kong during the 76ers game at the Wells Fargo Center, but those signs were confiscated.
”There’s no foul language, no politics.’ I asked ‘Why not?’ They said, ‘Don’t give me a hard time,’” Wachs said in an interview with Action News.
Wachs admitted he then stood up and started yelling “Free Hong Kong” before being escorted out.
”I think it’s shameful, harsh reaction,” Wachs added.
The Sixers have not yet responded to a request for comment.
UPDATE: The Sixers have released a statement.
In the interest of fairness, I want to reiterate that the Sixers have not yet given their explanation of why the fans were asked to leave the Wells Fargo Center. It’s important to note that the Sixers do not own the Wells Fargo Center and therefore the personnel you see escorting Wachs and his wife out of the arena may not be Sixers employees and they may not have been instructed by Sixers personnel.
If, however, the Sixers do establish some sort of responsibility for this incident, is it possible they have an explanation that separates this incident from that of the Morey situation? If someone was sitting behind the Sixers’ bench with a sign that read “Joel Embiid sucks”, there’s a good chance an authority figure of some sort might take that sign away. Then, if said someone began screaming “Joel Embiid sucks” directly at Joel from five rows back, it may be justifiable to force that person to leave. Remember the guy who flipped off Russell Westbrook?
But Wachs wasn’t taunting players with crude language or offensive gestures. He was making what is viewed as a political statement. If it’s the content of the message Wachs was delivering that got him tossed, then what’s the policy on political signs at Sixers games? What if he was silently holding up a “Black Lives Matter” sign? Would Wachs still have his sign confiscated?
Wachs had a sign that reiterated the same message that Morey supported in his consequential tweet from just a week ago. It’s really, really difficult to think there aren’t political and business motivations contributing to Wachs being removed from the arena. Sure, he first had the signs taken away and then went on to voice the same sentiment displayed on the poster boards directly behind (and probably at) the Lions’ bench. In a way, Wachs was begging for controversy. But it can also be seen as a test.
Let’s establish a simple rule: if you’re going to do business with China, you will inevitably be sucked into an internal battle between your principles and your business interests. We would like to believe that the NBA would base economic decisions off of the values they preach and represent. It is a tough line to walk in some respects and the reality is that plenty of American businesses think with their wallet when it comes to China and we keep buying what they’re selling. It’s hypocritical but it’s also hard for a lot of people, including NBA personnel, to understand and contextualize what it all means and what each person’s role in all of it is when we’re talking about a society on the other side of the globe. I’m not letting the NBA off the hook, but I guess I understand the difficult situation they find themselves in and that there isn’t an “escape China” button the NBA can press to fix this without severely impacting league operations.
But when it’s here? In our arena? The Philadelphia, ahem, SEVENTY SIXERS — as in Seventeen Hundred Seventy Six? I’m not arguing that the NBA as a whole should operate in one way in China and then turn around and operate in a different way in the States. But I do think there’s a way to deal with the situation delicately as it pertains to Chinese fandom while drawing a line in the sand establishing what’s tolerable and how far the NBA is willing to go to fix the tense relationship.
Consider the following excerpt from the brilliant Ben Thompson, writing on the Morey situation in relation to Chinese hacking of GitHub:
The projects China was presumably targeting were Chinese versions of GreatFire.org, which documents censorship by the Great Firewall, and the New York Times, both of which were hosted on Github. Given the importance of Github to software development, China could not block the site completely, so instead they tried to hold it hostage. It was a harbinger of what happened this week.
The Sixers justifiably do not have to tolerate the heckling of players, especially when the players can easily and distinctly hear the message. But whether they like it or not, throwing someone out of the stadium for an act involving politically charged speech will inherently be viewed as a political stance, even if the Sixers can make a reasonable case that Wachs was disruptive to the players and other fans around him. The Sixers have to know that. And in the face of this dichotomy, the Sixers may have chosen business interest over principles and also indirectly bent their knee to the will of the Chinese government. Because if they truly want to establish that “Yes, we are principled and we, as an international organization based in America, do reflect American ideals on the global stage”, this incident was an opportunity to do so, again, whether they like it or not. If the Sixers escorted Sam Wachs out of the building as to not upset Chinese relations, then they’ve allowed themselves to be held hostage by their own greed and ultimately by a totalitarian regime who opposes so many of the values we hope American businesses operate with as a guiding principle.