Since the 1992 Olympics, when the NBA’s best players ran all over the rest of the world, the league has sought to take basketball – its product in particular – globally. Its partnerships in China, where the game is wildly popular, have been a pivotal part of that expansion strategy.
But a single tweet from a general manager supporting protesters in Hong Kong could threaten that relationship and affect the way the public here and abroad views the league’s intentions on social issues.
On Friday, Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey tweeted an image – since deleted – that read “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.”
Those words caused a swell of geopolitical consequences that soon hit the NBA like a tidal wave, jeopardizing billions in business deals with companies in apparel and broadcasting. Even as increasingly violent demonstrations rage against the country’s authoritarian government, the message was clear: if you want to do business in China, you don’t criticize the government.
The Rockets, who have been among the most popular teams in China since they drafted Yao Ming with the first pick of the 2002 draft, were soon being erased from an enormous and still relatively untapped market the league and American apparel companies have coveted for years.
Tencent, a Shenzhen-based technology giant that earlier this summer extended its partnership with the NBA to 2024, decided to not air the team’s games. How the controversy might affect the Los Angeles Lakers isn’t clear. The team arrived in China on Tuesday afternoon (Monday in Los Angeles) and is scheduled to play two games against the Brooklyn Nets, one in Shanghai, the other in Shenzhen, which is near Hong Kong.
Protests began in Hong Kong in June over proposed legislation that would allow for extradition from Hong Kong to mainland China – a policy that could have impacted the region’s relative autonomy. The bill was withdrawn in September, but often-violent clashes between authorities and protesters have continued.
The NBA sought to distance itself from Morey’s comments, starting with Rockets owner Tillman Fertitta, who posted his own tweet saying his general manager “doesn’t speak for the Houston Rockets” and that the Rockets are “not a political organization.”
In a video posted by Chinese-run state television, James Harden, standing next to Russell Westbrook, apologized to China and its fans.
“We love China. We love playing there,” Harden said. “I know, for both of us individually, we go there once or twice a year. They show us the most love. We love everything they’re about. And we appreciate the support they give us individually and the organization. You know we love you.”
The NBA on Sunday issued a statement acknowledging that Morey’s statement had “deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China, which is regrettable.” However, the translation of that statement on Weibo, China’s microblogging site, had the league saying it was “greatly disappointed” at Morey’s “inappropriate speech.” Asked to clarify, Mike Bass, the league’s vice president of communications, told USA Today, “We have seen various interpretations of the translation of the Mandarin version, but our statement in English is the league’s official statement.”
Morey also tweeted an explanation: “I did not intend my tweet to cause any offense to Rockets fans and friends of mine in China. I was merely voicing one thought, based on one interpretation, of one complicated event. I have had a lot of opportunity since that tweet to hear and consider other perspectives.
“I have always appreciated the significant support our Chinese fans and sponsors have provided and I would hope that those who are upset will know that offending or misunderstanding them was not my intention. My tweets are my own and in no way represent the Rockets or the NBA.”
One of the NBA’s other team owners, Joe Tsai, defended China’s reaction in a lengthy Facebook post that categorized Hong Kong as a “third-rail issue” in China.
“When hundreds of millions of fans are furious over an issue, the league, and anyone associated with the NBA, will have to pay attention. As a Governor of one of the 30 NBA teams, and a Chinese having spent a good part of my professional life in China, I need to speak up,” Tsai wrote. “What is the problem with people freely expressing their opinion? This freedom is an inherent American value and the NBA has been very progressive in allowing players and other constituents a platform to speak out on issues. The problem is, there are certain topics that are third-rail issues in certain countries, societies and communities.
“Supporting a separatist movement in a Chinese territory is one of those third-rail issues, not only for the Chinese government, but also for all citizens in China.”
Morey is not the first public figure to anger the Chinese people and government by wading, either purposefully or accidentally, into political waters. Actors and actresses who have supported protesters have faced blacklisting. Jazz musician Kenny G – who was wildly popular in China – years ago sparked outrage by posing for photos with pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. More recently, a $14-an-hour Marriott employee working social media accounts caused another tiff when he simply “liked” a tweet praising the chain for listing Tibet as an independent country.
It’s a complex situation for the NBA, a league that’s increasingly become a vehicle for progressive causes ranging from gun violence to police brutality to education reform to human rights. In 2016, the league removed its All-Star game from Charlotte after North Carolina’s controversial “bathroom bill” left transgender people exposed to discrimination and without legal protections. The bill was later repealed.
It felt like a watershed moment – a professional sports league coming to the aid of a marginalized group and helping effect change. Three years later, it’s being thrown back as an example of the NBA’s hypocrisy.
On Monday, Democrats and Republicans alike criticized the NBA’s backpedaling.
“No one should implement a gag rule on Americans speaking out for freedom,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., tweeted. “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.”
Republican Florida Sen. Marco Rubio tweeted that the NBA was throwing Morey “under the bus to please the Communist Chinese Govt. Disgusting.” Fellow Republican Florida Sen. Rick Scott chimed in with “It’s clear that the @NBA is more interested in money than human rights.”
NBA players have long made trips to China in the offseason where they’re met with “Beatlemania” levels of excitement. The trips, which are almost entirely sponsored by shoe companies, have become a necessary stop for superstar players who are promoting their brands.
And it’s forced the NBA to figure out a way to explain why Morey’s tweet is different than a star player standing up to President Donald Trump online.
Speaking in Japan, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said he supports Morey and Tsai’s ability to express their views.
“These are complex issues; they don’t lend themselves easily to social media. I can’t ultimately run the NBA based on trying to satisfy everyone on Twitter,” Silver said. “For those who choose also to engage, they’ll see that we are dealing with a complex set of issues. And I will just add that the fact that we have apologized to fans in China is not inconsistent with supporting someone’s right to have a point of view.”
The reaction to the tweet is indicative of the issues American businesses have to navigate if they wish to capitalize on China’s massive spending power. This was a team’s relatively anonymous general manager – not a star player, not a Chinese icon, not even a celebrity – voicing an opinion. So who could blame someone like LeBron James should he carefully sidestep questions related to the same topic this week. That seems like more the job of a diplomat than a basketball player, even one as socially conscious as James.
Clearly, the NBA can be a utopic place – one where racism is met head on, where sexism isn’t tolerated, where minority groups are celebrated and embraced. Those types of issues have been a driving force for the NBA’s off-court work for years.
But this situation should hit the NBA like a steel chair to the head. Because while the league can enjoy the identity of progressiveness driven by its players, it’s more than that.
It’s a business. A big one, with a lot of moving parts. In situations like this, that’s impossible to ignore.