What do Mesut Özil and Daryl Morey have in common?

Western sports’ two most powerful figures to have publicly criticised the Chinese Communist Party now find themselves on the side-lines. 

Mesut Özil has, in all likelihood, played his last game for Arsenal. 

At first glance, the rapid fall from grace of a player who, even at his peak, was somewhat of an enigma, should not be surprising. For years, his languid style and dispirited body language led to detractors determining that now was the time for the Gunners to cut loose their once-magical playmaker and look to the future instead. 

Well, finally it’s…sort of…happened. The announcement came not in words, or a carefully constructed goodbye, or an eyewatering move to the Chinese Super League (yep, definitely not that), but in the omission of the 32 year old German midfielder from Arsenal’s 2020/2021 Premier League squad. 

“It’s a football decision,” explained Mikel Arteta yesterday evening. “My conscious is very calm because I have been really fair with him.” It was inevitable, after Özil took to social media earlier in the day to express his heartbreak at the exclusion, that Arteta would have some explaining to do. With rumours swirling of board interference, Arteta bore any blame squarely on his shoulders. “My job is to get the best out of every player. [With Özil] I have failed.”

In the Spaniard, now embarking on his first full season at the helm, Arsenal seem to have found the man to guide them back towards the top of English football. If he believes the squad is better off without their no.10, there is no reason to doubt him. Few would argue that Özil is the player he once was, and, for the first time since long before Arsene Wenger’s tenure ended, there seems to be an air of optimism emanating from North London these days. Why risk re-integrating Özil? Fair enough, Mikel.

It does not bode well however, that the singular western sporting superstar to openly and unapologetically criticise the Chinese Communist Party for their continued human rights abuses has been pushed to the side-line, less than a year after speaking out. 

In December 2019, Özil condemned the CCP for their treatment of Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang province. He called on fellow Muslims to do more to raise global awareness of the millions being persecuted and detained in concentration camps across the region. 

This is not conjecture. It was not then. It is not now. 

Yet it caused quite a stir. Immediately, Arsenal issued a statement on Weibo, and other forms of social media, distancing themselves from their star midfielder’s remarks. Their exact response? “The content published is Özil’s personal opinion. As a football club, Arsenal has always adhered to the principle of not involving itself in politics.” 

*****

The Houston Rockets’ separation from their General Manager, Daryl Morey, has been a prettier affair than the saga at the Emirates. Morey himself announced his resignation on October 16th, in a full page love letter published in the Houston Chronicle. He thanked Houston fans, the Rockets organisation, star man James Harden, and many more, for “the most amazing 14 years of [his] life.”  

In the days since his resignation, a deluge of praise has poured in for the outgoing executive. Justified praise – I might add. Despite a Championship ring eluding the Rockets, the team did not finish with a losing record during any of Morey’s 14 years in charge, and made it to two Western Conference Finals (both times coming up short against the Golden State Warriors – in 2015 against arguably the greatest team of all time, and in 2017 against that same team plus another bloke called Kevin Durant). Only Greg Popovich’s San Antonio Spurs have won more games since 2008 than Morey’s Rockets.

Furthermore, Morey’s team transformed the NBA. Brad Pitt is yet to play him in a biopic, but Houston’s style of basketball – avoiding mid-range jumpers, prioritising threes, free-throws and lay-ups – became the NBA’s version of Moneyball, and franchises around the league swiftly followed suit. He was not afraid to experiment: the roster he leaves behind does not have a single player over 6ft 8in, and while last off-season’s Russell Westbrook – Chris Paul trade did not pan out for Houston, the presence of petulant new Rockets owner Tilman Ferrita has to be acknowledged, as does James Harden’s tender ego.

Okay, that’s enough basketball talk. I imagine you have an idea what is coming next…

On October 4th 2019, a little over a year before his resignation, Daryl Morey tweeted an image reading, “Fight for Freedom, Stand with Hong Kong.” 

Shit hit the fucking fan. The Chinese Basketball Association suspended all ties with the Houston Rockets. Chinese streaming services, sponsors and retailers followed. Morey was made to delete the tweet, apologise, and the NBA produced a statement labelling his actions, “regrettable,” and assuring people that Morey’s support for Hong Kong protestors, “does not represent the Rockets or the NBA.” Lebron James called Morey ‘misinformed.’ Aforementioned owner Ferrita said (you guessed it), “The Rockets are not a political organisation.” 

It is important to know that the greatest Chinese basketball player of all time played for Houston. Yao Ming was drafted first overall in the 2002 NBA draft by the Rockets, making him the first ever foreigner to be selected no.1.

Chinese fans followed (in spirit) their 7ft 6in big man to Houston. By 2006, the highest selling basketball shirt in China was not Yao Ming, but Tracy McGrady – Ming’s Rockets teammate and fellow superstar. Though Yao has long retired, the Rockets organisation remains incredibly successful in China, and only the Warriors have more fans in the world’s most populous country.

The condemnation of Morey was emphatic. Basketball scrambled to hold onto Chinese business, and while they may have succeeded, they embarrassed themselves in doing so. Pathetic, feeble, and – to use my dear Lebron’s word – grossly misinformed.  

*****

The NBA’s annual revenue is $7.4 billion. The Premier League’s is $5.3 billion. These staggering numbers make them the 3rd and 5th most profitable sports leagues in the world, respectively. While very different organisations (though the American owners of Manchester United and Liverpool seem hellbent on converting their football clubs into franchises) both leagues inevitably want more money, and are desperate to maximise the potential market still awaiting them in China. 

The similarities do not end there. Both leagues took measures to raise awareness of social injustice when restarting after the Covid-19 pandemic. All Premier League players wore the words ‘Black Lives Matter’ on the backs of their shirts, instead of their names, for the first round of matches in June, and continue to take a knee before each game. 

Inside the NBA’s Orlando bubble, players took a knee before games, could choose what message to put on the back of their jerseys, and the words ‘Black Lives Matter’ were painted across the court. The political focus intensified following the shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin, when the Milwaukee Bucks refused to play. The entire NBA playoffs were thrown into doubt, and only returned after three days of extensive talks between the players, the league and organisations set up to combat police brutality and racial inequality. 

I’m not sure what changed for teams between the Özil and Morey incidents, and now. Either they realised there is nothing political about supporting an oppressed minority; or, they realised that they can use their platform to advocate for what they believe in.

Frankly, I don’t care why they woke up. Their stance for racial equality was powerful and a good thing.

I can however, tell you something that has not changed between the Özil and Morey incidents, and now: the subjugation of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang; or, the draconian surveillance and extradition laws in Hong Kong. Yet still, for all their recent advocacy, neither league, nor their players, nor their teams, dare speak out against the Chinese government. It would cost them too much dollar.

Conversely, supporting a timely political movement such as Black Lives Matter will only help them – both financially and from a public relations perspective. Yeah, they’ll have pissed some people off. They might lose a couple dozen fans in Burnley and Mississippi. But overall, down the road, backing BLM will help their businesses and they know it.

I’m glad football and basketball have chosen to support Black Lives Matter, but if they really care about social justice, they must confront China next. Otherwise, they’re simply selecting which political plight suits their narrative and using it for profit, which, in my book, makes them about as corrupt as anyone.

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