That seemingly innocuous support of pro-democracy protesters ushered in a 72-hour tidal wave of responses from all corners. Chinese fans lashed out at the Houston Rockets' general manager, pelting him with insults online and demanding that he be fired. Owner Tilman Fertitta tried to distance the Rockets from Morey’s tweet, saying that his organization was “NOT political.”
That wasn’t enough for the Chinese Basketball Association, Chinese media company Tencent and multiple Chinese sponsors, who all quickly moved to sever ties with the Rockets. If that sounds drastic, remember that the Rockets have long been one of China’s most popular NBA teams because they drafted Yao Ming in 2002.
Meanwhile, multiple Democratic presidential candidates decried China’s tactics. Julián Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio, accused China of “using its economic power to silence critics — even those in the [United States]” and said that the United States must “not allow American citizens to be bullied by an authoritarian government.”
The NBA suddenly and unexpectedly found itself facing a full-blown crisis. On one hand, Commissioner Adam Silver has made a point to encourage political expression and diverse beliefs, and Morey’s tweet was hardly controversial by American standards. On the other, the NBA has major financial ties to China that it has spent decades cultivating, and the country’s power brokers clearly have no intention of turning the other cheek.
By Sunday evening, with pressure mounting, the NBA finally released an official statement, acknowledging the political fallout but electing not to punish Morey.
“We recognize that the views expressed by [Morey] have deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China, which is regrettable,” the statement read. “While Daryl has made it clear that his tweet does not represent the Rockets or the NBA, the values of the league support individuals’ educating themselves and sharing their views on matters important to them. We have great respect for the history and culture of China and hope that sports and the NBA can be used as a unifying force to bridge cultural divides and bring people together.”
Morey also issued a statement, explaining that he was “voicing one thought, based on one interpretation, of one complicated event” and adding that “offending or misunderstanding was not my intention.”
The NBA was clearly trying to have it both ways: offering an olive branch to China, while clinging to its reputation as a forward-thinking, tolerant organization. Noticeably absent from both statements? Respect or support for the Hong Kong protesters, who have every right to be dubious of Morey and taken aback by the NBA’s soggy response.
Indeed, this weekend revealed Morey to be an anti-Colin Kaepernick. The former NFL quarterback held sincere beliefs that angered many, never wavered when his professional future was in jeopardy and was ultimately willing to sacrifice his livelihood for his principles. Morey, by contrast, quickly abandoned his adopted cause.
It’s neither disgraceful nor surprising that Morey would try to get back to business as usual once he realized that he had inadvertently triggered a massive storm. But he must understand that he did far more harm than good for the cause he tried to support. While he stopped just short of saying “I’m sorry” to Chinese fans and sponsors, Morey should publicly apologize to the Hong Kong protesters, at the very least, for the unintended consequences of his tweet.
The NBA got a double dose of bitter pills to swallow. First, a reminder that foreign countries aren’t just territory to conquer in a global marketing strategy — they can be full of political land mines, conflicts of interest and human rights violations too. Second, an understanding that its progressive reputation is the same as every other kind of reputation — it requires a lifetime to build and only a minute to lose.
Silver said this summer that he hoped that “there could be something called basketball diplomacy,” whereby the sport could help bring together the United States and China during a tense period of their relationship.
Sadly, the league must realize that the only binding ties on display this weekend were financial ones.