The National Basketball Association found itself fighting public relations wars on multiple fronts this week, and across the political spectrum, as an uproar over an NBA executive’s statement that ran afoul of Chinese sensibilities revealed hypocrisy in how the league treats expressions of dissent. Chinese outrage followed Houston Rockets general manager Darryl Morey’s brief tweet in support of Hong Kong protestors—“Fight for freedom. Stand with Hong Kong”—provoking multiple abject apologies and appeasing words from the NBA, its owners, and even players. A league statement called Morey’s comments “regrettable.”
The Chinese government’s fierce, instant response to Morey’s tweet put league commissioner Adam Silver on the horns of a dilemma. The league could disown the tweet, appear to sacrifice American free-speech principles, and apologize to China, salvaging the NBA’s important business relationship with Beijing, reportedly worth many billions of dollars—or it could support Morey and others who speak out about injustices, national and international, and emphasize that the NBA’s free-speech credentials are nonnegotiable. The NBA chose the first course, groveling to China while mumbling platitudes about supporting their employees’ rights to express themselves. Security even forced the removal of pro-Hong Kong signs at the Washington Wizards’ Wednesday night exhibition game against China’s Guangzhou Loong Lions—a game played in the United States, one hastens to add.
It didn’t help. The Chinese followed through on pledges to cancel the broadcasts of NBA preseason games being played between American and Chinese teams. A Chinese bank and sporting goods company pulled out of merchandising deals with the Houston Rockets. The Chinese Basketball Association, led by former Rockets star Yao Ming, decided to “suspend exchanges and cooperation” with the team.
“We believe that any speech that challenges national sovereignty and social stability is not within the scope of freedom of speech,” China’s CCTV said in a statement the next day. CCTV and Tencent, which hold the NBA’s digital rights in China, confirmed that they would no longer broadcast NBA games played in China. By Wednesday, every Chinese-owned NBA sponsor had suspended ties to the league. On Thursday, Nike was reportedly removing Rockets gear from the store shelves in China. The NBA then announced that it would not offer media availability for the final matchup in the China Games on Saturday, between the Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Lakers.
The NBA prides itself on its support for social-justice movements. Silver has praised players for wearing “I Can’t Breathe” tee shirts during warmups, and said last year that a “sense of obligation, social responsibility, a desire to speak up directly about issues that are important” was vital for the league’s players, who have exchanged insults with President Trump, spoken out in favor of the Black Lives Matter movement, and preemptively refused invitations to the White House. In 2016, the league refused to hold its All-Star Game in North Carolina due to the state’s transgender “bathroom ban.” The league didn’t worry when Enes Kanter of the Boston Celtics called Turkey’s president Recep Erdoğan the “Hitler of our century,” or when the Portland Trail Blazers, under pressure from anti-Zionist protestors, announced that they would cut ties with a company that does business with the Israeli army. It’s likely a different story, though, when it comes to criticism of China.
The controversy has united America’s divided political tribes. Republican senator Ted Cruz joined Democrat representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other members of Congress from both parties in a letter delivered to Silver on Wednesday, protesting the NBA’s timorous response and demanding that, as an American organization, the league uphold American values and laws. Democratic presidential candidate Julian Castro accused China of using its economic power to silence critics, and another Democratic candidate, Beto O’Rourke, tweeted, “The only thing the NBA should be apologizing for is their blatant prioritization of profits over human rights.” Republican senator Rick Scott of Florida ridiculed the NBA’s equivocating public statements.
The NBA case makes more headlines, but American companies have long been prostrating themselves in exchange for access to the Chinese market—including Apple and Google, which incorporate the trappings of social consciousness into their branding. It’s hard to blame NBA personalities like Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr, who has strong opinions on many hot-button issues, when he demurs from commenting on China. In his league, criticizing the Chinese government has real consequences—as Darryl Morey and the Houston Rockets have learned.
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