In early June 2019, 240,000 Hong Kong residents took to the streets to peacefully protest proposed legislation that would permit its citizens to be extradited to mainland China for trial. The bill in question was later withdrawn, but the demonstrations expanded into a protest against police brutality and oppression from Beijing. On October 4, Daryl Morey, General Manager of the NBA’s Houston Rockets, issued a tweet in support of the Hong Kong protestors: “Fight for freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.” Morey’s tweet sparked a firestorm from the government in China and an uproar on social media in the US. He deleted the tweet shortly after that.
The response to Morey’s tweet has exposed some hypocrisy among NBA players and management. Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta attempted to distance the team from Morey’s statement, tweeting “we are NOT a political organization.” The NBA did not issue an official apology but referred to Morey’s comments as “inappropriate” and noted that they “have deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China, which is regrettable.”
China’s response was swift. Basketball is big business there, with over 600 million Chinese watching games on TV each season. Ironically, China’s most famous NBA player, Yao Ming, played for the Rockets. China Central Television (CCTV) announced that it would no longer broadcast Rockets games, negating a deal purported to be worth $1.5 billion. The Chinese government can enforce such a decision because it controls the media. But the response from China was not limited to the Chinese. Nike—a US-based company—removed Rockets gear from its stores in China.
The NBA’s hypocrisy has been called out by Republicans and Democrats alike. Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz called out China and the NBA’s lack of defense of Morey, tweeting, “Now in pursuit of $$, the @NBA is shamefully retreating.” New Jersey Democratic Representative Tom Malinowski tweeted, “the #NBA, which (correctly) has no problem with players/employees criticizing our [government], is now apologizing for criticizing the Chinese [government]. This is shameful and cannot stand.”
On October 8, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver issued a statement that provided a qualified defense of Morey, but his waffling has satisfied neither the Chinese nor many fans in the US. “The NBA will not put itself in a position of regulating what players, employees and team owners say or will not say. We simply could not operate that way…there are consequences from freedom of speech; we will have to live with those consequences…For those who question our motivation, this is about far more than growing our business.”
NBA star LeBron James only made things worse when he referred to Morey as “misinformed and not really educated on the situation.” James, who has logged dozens of poignant tweets in the last few years addressing social issues in the United States and criticizing President Trump, has remained silent on the events in Hong Kong and suggested that others should do likewise. Like many all-stars, James makes more from endorsements than he does from his $35 million annual salary with the Los Angeles Lakers. He has profited from the NBA’s expansion into China and stands to lose a lot if this rift continues.
The situation continued to deteriorate after James’ comments. After a trip to Asia, Adam Silver said that Chinese authorities asked him to fire Daryl Morey, but he refused. “We said there’s no chance that’s happening…There’s no chance we’ll even discipline him,” Silver responded. But a Chinese government spokesman immediately insisted that no demands were made.
The NBA is desperately looking for a solution that satisfies both the Chinese and US fans. Perhaps a soft apology to China—one that’s not called an apology—coupled with the passage of time will improve things on the surface. But at the core of this issue, there is no middle ground. As a China Central TV statement put it, “We believe any remarks that challenge national sovereignty and social stability do not belong to the category of free speech.” But speech is either free or it’s not.
Like Morey, I sympathize with the Hong Kong protestors, and I cherish the right to say so. The NBA has encouraged a wide range of social and political activity in the past. Spurs coach Greg Popovich and Warriors coach Steve Kerr have been harsh critics of President Trump, and many of the players actively support Black Lives Matter and other movements. Now that one general manager has opined about Hong Kong, Popovich, Kerr, James, and others have decided that basketball doesn’t mix with politics. You can’t have it both ways.