A snowball has turned into an avalanche for Daryl Morey and the NBA after the Houston Rockets GM weighed in on the current political climate in China this past week. A simple tweet, now deleted, lies at the heart of the controversy, as Morey posted an image lending support to the protestors in Hong Kong who are entering their 18th consecutive week of public demonstration. The unrest stems from a bill the Hong Kong government proposed that would allow authorities to detain and extradite criminal fugitives in the territory to mainland China. Protestors fear that this bill would subject Hong Kong residents and visitors to mainland Chinese jurisdiction, which the region is not currently under, jeopardizing the semi-autonomous status it received after the United Kingdom returned the area to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.
Days after the NBA showcased its first preseason game featuring the Rockets and the Shanghai Sharks, Morey’s tweet has fractured the relationship between the ever-expanding basketball organization and China. Since his post on October 4th, several Chinese businessmen have dropped ties with the Rockets, the Chinese Basketball Association has cancelled games with the NBA’s G-League affiliate, and China’s state-run CCTV has suspended broadcasts of all of the NBA’s preseason games, including those scheduled to take place in Shenzhen and Shanghai. The fallout has been swift and severe and has reportedly put as many as four billion dollars at stake, that includes a five-year, $1.5 billion deal with Chinese broadcast giant, Tecent, as well as other lucrative sponsorships.
The Rockets, who have long been “China’s team” thanks to Yao Ming, have certainly tried their best to rectify the situation to no avail. Hours after the initial post, Rockets owner, Tilman Fertitta, took to Twitter to distance the team from Morey, emphasizing, “@dmorey does NOT speak for the @HoustonRockets” and, “we are NOT a political organization.” The ownership even mulled firing the general manager, who has been responsible for three-straight 50+ win seasons, as a means of alleviating the situation. Morey, for his part, apologized on Twitter, distancing his opinions from the Rockets and NBA, and even James Harden offered his own apology on behalf of his GM.
The NBA also weighed in with a similar lack of success and additional controversy. Sunday night, the league released statements, one in English, the other in Chinese, that conveyed subtly differing messages: the former as an apology of Morey’s stance and the latter as a strong rebuke. Of course, this discrepancy did not go unnoticed and drew a loud reaction within the U.S. as many saw the Chinese edition of the NBA’s statement as an indictment towards freedom of speech. Many U.S. lawmakers accused the NBA of putting profit before the first amendment right, and some even went as far as to suggest the league ought to cancel its games in China.
The pressure culminated in commissioner Adam Silver taking the podium in Tokyo on Tuesday to address the commotion. His comments primarily defended Morey’s right to voice his opinion although he used words such as “apologetic” and “regret” to describe the outcome and reaction to the tweet. However, Silver did acknowledge that the league would have to “live with those consequences” and, again, advocated for Morey’s freedom of speech.
Because Silver took a middle ground in trying to placate both outraged Chinese businessmen and U.S. champions of free speech, it does not appear that the conflict is going away anytime soon. CCTV responded to the commissioner’s statements expressing its dissatisfaction towards his defense of unrestricted expression saying, “we believe that any speech that challenges national sovereignty and social stability is not within the scope of freedom of speech.” While the merits of China’s response are up for debate across borders, it is clear the country is taking a hardline stance towards any form of support for the protestors.
The mixing of business, politics, and cultural norms is a messy situation that has been especially aggravated given the disparities between Chinese and U.S. systems. Moreover, it doesn’t help that the decision makers and loudest voices on China’s end are among the country’s elites, the majority of whom are aligned with the state’s position on the protests. Clearly the development in Hong Kong is a sensitive issue that should be approached thoughtfully, but Morey’s stance by no means deserves a fallout of this magnitude. The Rockets’ and NBA’s predicament in this issue is understandable to a certain extent — China contains over 300 million basketball players with more than double that amount who watch the NBA. However, popularity in a marketplace cannot be allowed to undermine one of the most fundamental U.S. principles, and for that Silver deserves credit. This is surely not the end of this fiasco, but the NBA would be best served to move on from the whole thing and let China make the next move, because if it wishes to restrict the NBA from Chinese fans further, it may trigger more attention and an even larger movement for the protestors in Hong Kong.