Morey and the league quickly apologized over the weekend to outraged Chinese fans, who called for Morey to be fired.
“It is inevitable that people around the world — including from America and China — will have different viewpoints over different issues. It is not the role of the NBA to adjudicate those differences,” he said. “However, the NBA will not put itself in a position of regulating what players, employees and team owners say or will not say on these issues.”
“Values of equality, respect and freedom of expression have long defined the NBA — and will continue to do so,” he added. “As an American-based basketball league operating globally, among our greatest contributions are these values of the game.”
Chinese state media didn’t buy it.
“We’ve noticed NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s response to the inappropriate remarks by Houston Rockets GM Morey. We are strongly unsatisfied and opposed to Adam Silver’s claim of supporting Morey’s rights of having freedom of speech,” sports channel CCTV5 said Tuesday on its social media page. “We think any remarks that challenge national sovereignty and social stability are outside the category of freedom of speech.”
CCTV5 added that it would “immediately investigate all cooperation and exchanges with the NBA,” hinting at a potentially deeper rupture with the league, which has a three-decade-long history with CCTV and, as of this summer, a $1.5 billion streaming deal with Internet portal Tencent.
CCTV5’s announcement will affect at least two preseason games scheduled this week between the Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Lakers — games meant to showcase stars such as LeBron James for Chinese fans. The Nets and Lakers are scheduled to play Thursday and Saturday in Shanghai and Shenzhen.
After the controversy erupted over the weekend, several Chinese celebrities who had signed on to perform at the Shanghai event swiftly backed out, and practically all e-commerce platforms took down Rockets merchandise. By Tuesday evening, several brands, including smartphone maker Vivo and the Luckin Coffee chain, also cut their sponsorship deals with the NBA.
The NBA China spokesman’s phone was turned off on Tuesday.
For many Americans, including lawmakers in Washington, the rapidly spiraling episode seemed to demonstrate how China, flush with nationalist sentiment and raw consumer power, can bend a major American sports league to its will.
Many Chinese, steered by a steady stream of state media propaganda, believe Hong Kong’s protesters are violent rioters manipulated by U.S. intelligence agencies to challenge Chinese national sovereignty.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Tuesday that the decision by state media to cancel coverage of the preseason exhibitions this week reflected the popular will of Chinese people.
“I suggest that you pay attention to the reaction of ordinary Chinese people on this matter and their attitudes,” Geng said. “It is not feasible to conduct exchanges and cooperation with the Chinese yet not understand Chinese public opinion.”
By Tuesday, the fast-moving story seemed to become a proxy tussle over U.S.-China relations. After lawmakers in Washington criticized the NBA for rebuking Morey and sacrificing American civil liberties to appease an authoritarian regime in China, Hu Xijin, the outspoken editor of the nationalist Global Times newspaper, said the saga showed that China and the United States were clashing at a deep cultural level.
“Things are evolving into serious conflicts between the two kinds of political correctness of the American and Chinese societies, and there is little room for mediation in the middle,” he wrote in a lengthy essay on Weibo. “The more rabidly the U.S. demonstrates its political correctness, the more radical a backlash it will get from the Chinese Internet. The absurd U.S. arrogance will kill the NBA’s market in China.”