The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

NBA under fire from all directions after response to Rockets-China incident

The Houston Rockets' general manager tweeted support for Hong Kong protesters, creating tension between the NBA and one of its biggest supporters — China. (Video: The Washington Post)

For more than a decade, NBA teams have traveled to China every autumn to stage exhibition games and to spread the sport’s gospel in a crucial international market. This year, the league finds its annual overseas journey consumed by the political fallout prompted by an executive’s tweet in support of Hong Kong protesters.

Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey sparked a furious backlash Friday when he tweeted: “Fight for freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.”

China has been embroiled in four months of demonstrations, which began in June in opposition to a proposal to a bill that would allow people to be extradited from Hong Kong to China, and the response was swift and unyielding. The Chinese Basketball Association announced it would sever ties with the Rockets, as did Tencent, the NBA’s rights holder in China, and the Rockets’ Chinese sponsors.

NBA’s handling of Daryl Morey-China maelstrom shows that money matters most

Brooklyn Nets owner Joe Tsai, the billionaire co-founder of the Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba, said Morey’s tweet was “so damaging to the relationship with our fans in China” and that “the hurt that this incident has caused will take a long time to repair.” Tsai also referred to Hong Kong as a “third-rail issue” in Chinese politics.

Morey, who deleted his original Twitter post, sought to tamp down the response. “I was merely voicing one thought, based on one interpretation, of one complicated event,” he said in a statement. “I would hope that those who are upset will know that offending or misunderstanding them was not my intention.”

The NBA also tried to assuage Chinese concerns, issuing its own statement that said it was “regrettable” that Morey’s tweet had “deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China.” Although the league did not discipline Morey, its statement noted the NBA’s “great respect for the history and culture of China” and did not mention the Hong Kong protesters.

Almost immediately, though, the NBA came under attack from politicians and commentators who viewed its response as overly deferential to the Chinese government and lacking in support for pro-democracy voices. The NBA, which has sought to cultivate an inclusive and progressive reputation under Commissioner Adam Silver, was accused of hypocrisy and of putting its financial interests over its ideals.

“I thought the NBA was proud to be the ‘wokest professional sports league’?” wrote Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) on Twitter. “I guess that only applies to speaking out on American politics and social issues. … China regulating speech in America is dangerous.”

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Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) added: “The NBA wants money, and the Communist Party of China is asking them to deny the most basic of human rights. In response, the NBA issued a statement saying money is the most important thing.”

The outrage came from both sides of the aisle.

Beto O’Rourke, a Democratic presidential candidate from Texas, said, “The only thing the NBA should be apologizing for is their blatant prioritization of profits over human rights,” terming the league’s statement “an embarrassment.”

“No one should implement a gag rule on Americans speaking out for freedom,” Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) wrote on Twitter. “I stand with the people of Hong Kong in their pursuit of democratic rights. I stand with Americans who want to voice their support for the people of Hong Kong. Unacceptable.”

The NBA’s China-Daryl Morey backlash, explained

This type of outcry is a rarity for the NBA under Silver, whose tenure has been marked by his even-keeled personality, his player-friendly approach and the league’s significant financial growth. Silver has drawn praise for his 2014 expulsion of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, who was caught making racist remarks on tape; his support of issues such as LGBTQ rights; and for reaching new labor agreements with the National Basketball Players Association without work stoppages.

The NBA’s global aspirations rely heavily on China, with Silver regularly referring to the country, and its population of 1.4 billion, as a top priority and, as he said in June, an “enormous opportunity.” Silver’s predecessor, David Stern, began laying roots in the country with a partnership with CCTV in 1987. The NBA began hosting exhibition games in China in 2004, and the NBA officially opened its NBA China office in 2008. The Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets will play exhibition games this week in Shanghai and Shenzhen.

Meanwhile, superstars such as Kobe Bryant and LeBron James have regularly made summer pilgrimages to promote their sneakers. Numerous NBA players, including former Miami Heat star Dwyane Wade, have signed promotional deals with Chinese sneaker companies rather than American brands. And NBA teams including the Rockets and Golden State Warriors have designed and worn jerseys aimed specifically at the Chinese audience.

According to league figures, 640 million Chinese viewers consumed NBA content during the 2017-18 season, and the NBA’s most recent five-year extension with Tencent was reportedly worth $1.5 billion. Tencent announced that 21 million people used its service to watch the decisive game of the 2019 NBA Finals — topping the viewership number in the United States.

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The Morey affair is the first time Silver and the NBA have had to publicly reckon with China as a polarizing political power broker. In his first public comments on the subject, Silver, who was in Tokyo on Monday in advance of exhibition games between the Rockets and Toronto Raptors this week, attempted to clarify the league’s position.

“As a values-based organization that I want to make it clear … that Daryl Morey is supported in terms of his ability to exercise his freedom of expression,” Silver said, according to the Kyodo News.

The commissioner also acknowledged that there have been “fairly dramatic [economic] consequences” from Morey’s tweet, and that “it will take some time to heal some of these issues” with the Chinese government and businesses.

“I would like to believe … that many sports fans that don’t pay all that much attention to politics, or to the situation in China and Hong Kong, may as a result know far more now about the situation,” Silver concluded, according to Japan Times.

While Morey had stopped short of issuing a formal apology, Rockets star James Harden, the 2018 NBA MVP, did just that.

“We apologize,” said Harden, who has traveled to China in the past to promote his Adidas sneakers. “We love China. We love playing there. They show us the most support and love. We appreciate them as a fan base. We love everything they’re about. We appreciate their support they give us, individually and as an organization.”

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