The Georgetown men’s basketball team’s trip to China gained international attention as video of the unfortunate fight between the Hoyas and the Bayi Rockets went viral around the world. There have since been a plethora of stories written about the incident, many with factual errors and misinterpretations.

The purpose of the trip was to build upon Georgetown’s growing academic linkages with China by showcasing the university’s most well-known brand, the Hoya men’s basketball team, in a series of exhibition games in Beijing and Shanghai. After being mobbed for pictures with smiling Chinese youth as they visited the Great Wall and Forbidden City, the Hoyas played a sedate and friendly game against the Shanxi Brave Dragons. Vice-President Biden, traveling to China for meetings with Xi Xinping, the future leader of China, dropped by the game upon his arrival in the country and amiably engaged the Chinese audience at the stadium, exchanging jokes and high-fives.

By contrast, the mood at the game the following evening with the Bayi Rockets, a professional basketball team sponsored by the People’s Liberation Army, was tense; the game was very physical from the start. The PLA sent a spectator section of soldiers who chanted loud, disciplined cheers every time the Rockets scored. There was some scuffling among players during the game, and a bizarre moment when one of the Bayi players approached and started yelling at Head Coach Thompson III for some unknown reason.

The foul count was imbalanced (at one point 28 against Georgetown and 11 against Bayi). Unfortunately, that is what you get when you play in China. The Rockets, former Chinese Basketball Association champions, played to win. Though this was billed as a “friendship match,” competitive juices were flowing, emotions were high and unfortunately, things got out of hand. At the start of the fourth quarter, a sequence of unsportsman-like plays involving mad scrambles for loose balls led to the fracas.

Georgetown players and alumni were pulled out of the stadium and placed onto buses for safety reasons once the crowd started throwing debris onto the court in the direction of the players.

Despite the widespread play of the video clips in the United States, tensions calmed down considerably after the event. No one was seriously hurt. The coaches and player representatives from the two teams were immediately in contact after the incident to express their sincerest regrets and worked together through the night to find a proper way of reconciling.

Senior levels of the Chinese government offered to help the team in any way possible. The Bayi coach met Coach Thompson, Jason Clark and Hollis Thompson the following morning. Surprisingly, the two parties shared an amicable discussion about future interactions, including talks of a program in which Chinese youth might come to participate in summer basketball clinics in the United States. Contrary to press speculation, the delegation never considered cancelling the remainder of its itinerary. Instead, they flew to Shanghai as scheduled the next day, where they conducted basketball clinics to a resoundingly friendly reception from the Chinese players and audience.

Whenever an incident like this occurs, the Chinese system is inherently geared against the rapid passage of bad news up the chain to higher level decision makers. I think Chinese authorities were especially concerned that the event not be seen as a deterrent for future NCAA teams to come to China to play exhibition games. The images of U.S. student-athletes from storied institutions like Georgetown being physically beaten by the PLA basketball team does not bode well for China’s international image. The video of the incident was quickly censored in China, which arguably indicated embarrassment on the part of Chinese authorities. Very senior levels of the Chinese government were personally in touch with the university to express regret and concern for any who were hurt.

One press report described the incident as the antithesis to ping-pong diplomacy, marking the increasingly competitive nature of U.S.-China relations; I, however, do not agree. At the end of the day, this was a scrap between youthful athletes, not between countries. The direction of U.S.-China relations will be determined less by a basketball game than by contemporaneous events like Vice President Biden’s meetings. Nevertheless, Georgetown’s experiences on that one evening are emblematic of the growing pains in U.S.-China relations. There will inevitably be moments such as these in which cultural differences and competition create tensions in our relationship.

VICTOR CHA is a professor at Georgetown and former director of Asian affairs on the NSC. He traveled as part of the official university delegation that accompanied the men’s basketball team to China.

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