- On Friday, the Houston Rockets’ general manager, Daryl Morey, published a tweet supporting protests in Hong Kong.
- Morey was criticised by people in China, where the protests are unpopular, and several Chinese companies suspended operations with the Rockets and the NBA, which has devoted significant resources to growing basketball in the country.
- While Morey apologised, the NBA released a statement acknowledging that Morey’s tweet might have offended Chinese citizens.
- The NBA has since been criticised in the political sphere and the sports world as moving to appease the Chinese government while caring more about the league’s bottom line.
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The NBA finds itself in the midst of an international controversy that began with a tweet.
On Friday, in a since-deleted tweet, the Houston Rockets’ general manager, Daryl Morey, tweeted an image that said: “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.” The tweeted featured the symbol of Stand With Hong Kong, an activist group that has been behind calls for foreign government intervention in Hong Kong amid escalating protests.
Morey’s tweet drew criticism from social-media users in China, where the protests are unpopular.
In response, the Chinese Basketball Association, whose president is the former Rockets centre Yao Ming, announced it was suspending its relationship with the team. Several Chinese companies, including the state broadcaster China Central Television and the livestreaming platform Tencent Sports, announced they would not broadcast Rockets games.
According to The Athletic’s Shams Charania, the CBA cancelled a planned G League game between the Rockets’ affiliate – the Rio Grande Valley Vipers – and the Texas Legends.
The response from China hits the league hard. According to Sports Illustrated’s Chris Mannix, the NBA signed a five-year deal with Tencent in June worth at least $US500 million. China has been one of the league’s growing markets, with nearly 500 million viewers watching NBA games on Tencent last season. The NBA has invested time and money into growing the Chinese fan base. The Oklahoma City Thunder, the Los Angeles Lakers, and the Brooklyn Nets are all set to play preseason games in China over the next week.
The Rockets’ owner, Tilman Fertitta, responded in a tweet saying that Morey’s views didn’t represent the Rockets and that the organisation was nonpolitical.
Morey also issued an apology on Twitter, saying: “I did not intend my tweet to cause any offence to Rockets fans and friends of mine in China. I was merely voicing one thought, based on one interpretation, of one complicated event.”
The Brooklyn Nets’ owner, Joe Tsai, also released a lengthy response on Facebook, explaining and at times perhaps echoing the perspective of Chinese fans who were offended by Morey’s tweet. “The hurt that this incident has caused will take a long time to repair,” he said.
It is the NBA’s response to the issue, however, that has drawn criticism from the sports and political worlds alike.
The NBA issued a statement Sunday saying that while Morey’s tweet might have offended Chinese citizens, the league hoped sports could unify people.
Statement from NBA re: Daryl Morey’s controversial tweet: pic.twitter.com/6IJv9FJF4T
— Tim MacMahon (@espn_macmahon) October 7, 2019
A Twitter user named Yiqin Fu first noticed, however, that the league’s statement on the Chinese social-media app Weibo appeared to be different from the English version.
The NBA's original statement:
Recognize that [Morey's views] have deeply offended many in China, which is regrettable.
Translation it posted on Chinese social media:
Extremely disappointed in Morey's inappropriate statement. No doubt he's severely hurt the feelings of CN fans. pic.twitter.com/pi5PdQq3q9
— Yiqin Fu (@yiqinfu) October 7, 2019
The New York Times’ Sopan Deb tweeted that The New York Times also found a different translation. According to Deb, the NBA said that there should be no discrepancy between the statements and that the league stood by the English statement.
Per our ace Hong Kong team, this is the translation of the NBA's statement issued in Chinese on Sina Weibo: Note, calls Morey's statement "inappropriate" and that he "undoubtedly seriously hurt the feelings of Chinese basketball fans." pic.twitter.com/hF6ImTuXBO
— Sopan Deb (@SopanDeb) October 7, 2019
UPDATE: Per NBA spokesman, Mike Bass: "There should be no discrepancy on the statement issued earlier today. We have seen various interpretations of the translation of the Mandarin version, but our statement in English is the league’s official statement.”
— Sopan Deb (@SopanDeb) October 7, 2019
In the wake of the NBA’s statements, several politicians criticised the league as moving to appease the Chinese government to protect its bottom line.
It’s clear that the @NBA is more interested in money than human rights. Tonight’s statement from Commissioner Silver is an absolute joke.
— Rick Scott (@SenRickScott) October 7, 2019
— Ted Cruz (@tedcruz) October 7, 2019
They allow #China to punish a U.S. citizen for free speech in order to protect NBA’s market access in China.
— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) October 7, 2019
China is using its economic power to silence critics—even those in the U.S.
The United States must lead with our values and speak out for pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong, and not allow American citizens to be bullied by an authoritarian government. https://t.co/87U4jgsAAp
— Julián Castro (@JulianCastro) October 7, 2019
No one should implement a gag rule on Americans speaking out for freedom.
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.
— Chuck Schumer (@SenSchumer) October 7, 2019
Many in the sports world jumped in on the criticisms, too.
When there is money to be made, don't hunt for morality…
— Michael Lee (@MrMichaelLee) October 7, 2019
There's this bottom line about the bottom line: the NBA and its teams decided to do business in China, a Communist country with a less than stellar record on human rights. No surprise that a situation like the Morey one arose.
— Jeff Zillgitt (@JeffZillgitt) October 7, 2019
Let's say a Rockets player spoke out in support of Hong Kong. Given the NBA's stance that it is fine with players speaking out, what would Tilman Fertitta do? Ask the player to delete the tweet? Where does the bottom line fall when it's a player and not management?
— Jeff Zillgitt (@JeffZillgitt) October 6, 2019
Dan Wolken of USA Today brought up Enes Kanter, who has an arrest warrant in Turkey because of his criticisms of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Kanter has not returned to Turkey for fear of being targeted by supporters of Erdogan.
It’s worth remembering the NBA currently has a player who would put himself in peril if he left the US because he has been publicly critical of the autocratic leader in his home country. Stick to sports doesn’t always work in “this league.”
— Dan Wolken (@DanWolken) October 7, 2019
“The league is a strong supporter of its players and coaches taking stands on social issues, yet punts on its own opportunity to back an executive taking a position on one,” Mannix wrote, adding: “The league supports the causes of its members … just not ones that impact the bottom line.”
With several Chinese basketball teams playing preseason games in the US and LeBron James, one of the world’s biggest sports stars, heading to China for a preseason game, the matter – which some are already calling the biggest crisis of Commissioner Adam Silver’s tenure – is unlikely to die down soon.
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