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Should we also be asking questions about the WNBA’s relationship with China?

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Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey’s tweet in support of Hong Kong protesters exposed the NBA’s complicated relationship with China. Reaction to LeBron James’ comments further highlight how the intersection of Chinese profits and American politics may cause discomfort for the league and its stars indefinitely. What about the WNBA?

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RISE Conference 2017
Because of New York Liberty owner Joseph Tsai wading into the NBA-China conflict, the questions raised about the NBA’s relationship to the authoritarian country also apply to the WNBA.
Photo by studioEAST/Getty Images

Since Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey’s tweet in support of the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong sparked an international incident, the political, economic, social and cultural implications of NBA’s ever-deeper relationship with China has inspired performative consternation but also some needed critical analysis. The comments of a frustrated LeBron James on Monday evening reignited the controversy, suggesting that this issue will not soon fade away.

Yet, such analysis has not extended to the WNBA so far, despite the league, as well as individual players, being involved with China. So, what’s the deal with the WNBA and China? What should our expectations for the league and its players be? After all, the Brooklyn Nets were impacted by the conflict and owner Joseph Tsai, who also owns the New York Liberty, waded into the matter.

What is the WNBA’s view on Joe Tsai’s statement?

Tsai has been one of the most notable voices in the NBA-China situation. The Taiwanese-Canadian billionaire who co-founded Alibaba Group spoke out against Morey, posting an extensive open letter on Facebook that offered a pro-China perspective of the Hong Kong protests.

Tsai emphasized:

What is the problem with people freely expressing their opinion? This freedom is an inherent American value and the NBA has been very progressive in allowing players and other constituents a platform to speak out on issues. The problem is, there are certain topics that are third-rail issues in certain countries, societies and communities. Supporting a separatist movement in a Chinese territory is one of those third-rail issues, not only for the Chinese government, but also for all citizens in China.

His words failed to convince Americans, from all political persuasions. In the words of the New York Times, Tsai’s statement served as further confirmation that the NBA was “prioritizing money over human rights.”

Yet, it was Tsai’s money that made his entry into the WNBA exciting. His purchase of the Liberty seemed to signal a promising future for the franchise, allowing the Liberty to leave behind the doldrums of James Dolan’s ownership and again become one of the league’s flagship organizations. Tsai’s deep pockets, as well as his deep connections in Asia, also made imaginable new, fruitful opportunities, helping the WNBA expand into and take advantage of the Chinese and broader Asian markets.

Han Xu, the Liberty’s 2019 second-round draft pick, is a living preview of what could be possible.

Since overwrought fears of financial collapse seem to stalk the WNBA, it makes sense that the league was eager to embrace Tsai. However, the WNBA and its players, even more than the NBA and its players, have demonstrated a commitment to democratic causes. This willingness to take a stand has allowed the league to establish a stronger foothold in the American sports landscape, attracting those who admire players’ activism as much as their abilities. Does the league risk compromising this reputation by not addressing its connection to the NBA-China controversy? Perhaps. The WNBA’s progressive image seems important enough to its continued success, so a clear-eyed and coherent response to the league’s relationship to China could preserve, or even enhance, its standing.

Swish Appeal reached out to the WNBA for comment but did not receive a response as of the time of publication.

What’s in store for WNBA players who play in China?

However, long before Joe Tsai entered the WNBA, WNBA players had established ties to China. The Women’s Chinese Basketball Association (WCBA) presents one of the most profitable overseas playing opportunities for WNBA stars. For instance, two members of the WNBA champion Washington Mystics, Natasha Cloud and Aerial Powers, soon will head to China. Powers plays for the WCBA defending champion Guangdong Vermilion Birds, who also claim the services of the Los Angeles Sparks’ Nneka Ogwumike. Other 2019 WNBA All-Stars who played in the WCBA during the 2018-19 season included the New York Liberty’s Tina Charles (Beijing Great Wall), the Chicago Sky’s Diamond DeShields (Shanxi Flame) and the Seattle Storm’s Natasha Howard (Xinjiang Magic Deer).

WNBA players have never faced public criticism for their basketball-related business decisions. Furthermore, China is far from the only authoritarian country that allows women’s basketball stars to significantly supplement their inadequate WNBA salaries — an economic reality that has earned WNBA players the benefit of the doubt. Playing basketball in a certain country does not connote support for that country’s government, and this also applies to international players who suit up for teams in the United States.

On Monday’s episode of ESPN’s The Jump, the Los Angeles Sparks’ Chiney Ogwumike spoke of her “amazing experience” playing in China, where she felt part of the country’s basketball “community.” While admitting to the monetary incentives, she also described how she relished the opportunity to experience a new culture. Ogwumike also emphasized the “appetite for basketball in China,” noting the impression the passionate fans had on her and her sister during their time in the country. Such money-making opportunities and experiences of cultural immersion and exchange are valuable. But if such opportunities require that athletes appease the Chinese government by ignoring the Hong Kong protest and the country’s other atrocities, are these positives really worth it?

The perspectives of protestors highlight how this issue is much bigger than the cultural benefits derived from basketball. Protestors, like publisher Jimmy Lai, understand their daily fight as a “responsibility,” an uncompromising effort that will be necessary until Hong Kong’s citizens can enjoy the Western values and freedoms that Americans — whether basketball players or not — often take for granted.

What should happen next?

The questions about Tsai’s place in the WNBA and WNBA players’ place in China do not have easy answers. However, this does not mean these questions should be avoided.

In the United States, we invest sports with moral authority, holding leagues, teams and players to higher (and sometimes unreasonably high) standards. To their credit, WNBA teams and players have embraced this mantle, more often than not modeling “the kind of world we want to live.”

When considering whether and how to grow the women’s game and players’ individual brands in China or other authoritarian countries, it would be encouraging to see the WNBA and its players willingly wrestle with hard questions as they try to make informed, but likely imperfect, business decisions. It would be especially encouraging to see the WNBA take the lead, preparing players to respond to this fraught political, economic, social, and cultural situation with clear guidance.

The immediate (and likely ongoing) blowback levied at James for the somewhat muddled comments he made on Monday night underscores the need for the WNBA and its players to be prepared to navigate this tricky terrain.

For an informed, thorough explanation of the Hong Kong protests and China’s opposition to them, please see: Hong Kong protests 2019: news and updates