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U.S.-China Basketball Brawl Becomes an Inappropriate Metaphor

by Elizabeth C. Economy
August 22, 2011

Players from American Georgetown University men's basketball team and China's Bayi men's basketball team fight during a basketball friendly game at the Beijing Olympic Basketball Arena on August 18, 2011. (China Daily/Courtesy of Reuters)

It must be a testament to the dearth of interesting diplomatic discussions that a brawl between the Georgetown Hoyas and the Bayi Rockets became the headline news out of the U.S.-China summitry between Vice Presidents Biden and Xi last week. Page after page in newspaper after newspaper was filled with the same accounting of the unfair refereeing, aggressive play, and poorly behaved crowd. For many, the event became a metaphor for the animosity presumed to underpin the U.S.-China relationship and, possibly, a lack of respect to Vice President Biden.

When one reporter called me for commentary, however, I couldn’t offer much except to wonder whether the brawl wasn’t simply a case of a game getting out of control as sporting events sometimes do. Maybe the fact that the team was comprised of members of the People’s Liberation Army played a role, but other Chinese basketball teams have previously been called out for poor sportsmanship. Just last year, a game between China and Brazil turned violent within just the first few minutes of the game. I would be surprised, however, if the Brazilian papers reported the incident as a reflection of China’s overall relationship with Brazil. And let’s not forget that the U.S. has certainly seen its fair share of heated play turned ugly.

The point is context matters. One excellent piece of reporting by Dan Levin in the New York Times in the aftermath of the basketball game, for example, suggests a broader set of challenges in China’s sports culture. Levin points out that one Chinese basketball coach was recently suspended after his team protested his physical and verbal abuse, which included beating the players. Undoubtedly, this physical abuse is not limited to one team. As the Chinese Basketball Association chairman of game operations suggested “Coaches treat their players like their children, and it’s completely normal for parents to hit their kids.” Perhaps some of the Bayi Rockets violence against the Hoyas stemmed from their training regimen. Other U.S. basketball teams who have played in China have also commented on the need for developing a stronger refereeing culture on the mainland. I am sure this will happen over time; in the meantime, perhaps the U.S. can propose referee training as another area of cooperation within the Strategic and Economic Dialogue.

There are enough problems in the U.S. –China relationship; we don’t need to create any more. Even though I loved the movie, the last thing we need is for someone to call on Kurt Russell to reprise his role in “The Miracle” for some imagined U.S.-China face-off.

Post a Comment 6 Comments

  • Posted by P:rudent Man, CFA

    Some could interpret this as racial. Would that be too out of the realm of the idiocy of poltical correctness?

  • Posted by clt294

    Can you really call it a “fight” when you’re getting sucker-punched, having chairs lobbed at you, and literally stomped on (see above pic)? What a disgusting display.

  • Posted by chineseamerican

    This brawl can be a reflection of poor sportsmanship on both basketball teams and US-China relation. To me it’s no different than a brawl between two US NBA teams. The players involved should be reprimanded just like the NBA stars.

  • Posted by nofomc

    there are always two sides to every story and this is no different, on or off the court. The chinese as a rising power has long been, like most countries, subordinate with US foreign policy and economic reliance. Granted, spreading free market diplomacy and trade was once that pillar but as dollar hegemony and imperialism transformed a promise of sound monetary system into a threat and leverage being part of the USD block…US should not have that ability to dictate terms anymore. This is just another chapter of a rise and fall of a superpower.

  • Posted by Michael Burns

    Why select a US College team with the enduring legacy of mean spirited attitude, black players-only discrimination and thuggish intimidation. The shadow of the John Thompson years of Georgetown Basketball still remains as a blight on NCAA division I sports. The Chinese team cannot be at fault for anticipating a toxic mix of mean spirited play and, as a consequence, expressing anticipatory provocation. Poor choice of team selection by the US State Department.

  • Posted by P. Ami

    I spent 2 years in China and played basketball 4-5 times a week, weather permitting. First, generally speaking, a confrontation between players never remains a mano e mano affair. A group will form and either break up the fight, or it will choose one side and beat the other to a pulp. I have seen this happen on numerous occasions. Second, chairs and/or rocks (bricks if those are handy) will be used if available.

    This is true between Chinese and other Chinese, between Chinese and Chinese minorities, and Chinese and foreign people. One is more likely to find conflict between Chinese and foreign folk because the foreign person is an easily identified other. More often, the reason is the difference in social norms. The lines of what constitutes a foul that bring offense to a player in basketball is not universal. The amount of grabbing, hacking, undercutting, and trash-talking varies between countries. Recognizing when one has made an offensive action or comment is not always clear. When the line is crossed, things can get heated very quickly and then the cultural response kicks in. In China, the response tends to be a mob response. I saw this in random concrete courts in Hai Dien. I saw this on the courts of The People’s University (RenDa), at the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics (BeiHang) and it is true of the courts of the Sichuan University. I’ve seen this in villages and in metropolises. Obviously I haven’t made a scientific study, surveying all of China and all the participants on basketball courts. I can only say, what I saw in the Youtube clip of this brawl was not an unusual phenomenon in the Chinese basketball culture, nor would I assume it has anything to do with the relative power of the two nations. It’s how China rolls.

    One last point. English novices in China will strike up very formalized and rather meaningless conversations with English speakers. They do this to have a foil against which to practice their formal learning of English. In the same way, in China, they like to play against Westerners assuming we are good and that they can measure themselves against a “native” player. They are very friendly, but the forms of friendliness are blatantly on the surface and formal… almost ritualized. It is a form of “Face”. It makes it rather comfortable to strike up formal relationships that appear like friendships, but don’t hold up in the same manner that the Western term “friend” encompasses. Loyalty is viewed differently in China. There is a saying, “you do not make friends after school”. I take it to mean that as children you create binding friendships that are more similar to how I understand friendship. Once in the real world, it is all face. All that said, that face is present on the basketball court, but the civility is rather shallow.

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