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The NBA’s sudden problem in China

On Friday night, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted a quickly-deleted picture, regarding the ongoing protests in Hong Kong, which said: 

“Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong”

Those seven words set off a firestorm still raging between the influence of the Chinese market and the NBA’s upfront liberal image, which Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta quickly tried to extinguish. Here’s what he tweeted on Friday:

So, did that help?

No, it did not. Since Morey’s tweet supporting the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, the Chinese Basketball Association has cut ties with the Rockets, specifically, which is remarkable because former Rocket Yao Ming is president of the league, and helped create the popularity boom of basketball in his home country.

The Chinese streaming service Tencent Sports, which broadcast games last season to 500 million people in China, announced it would no longer stream Rockets games.

(As a small aside, this is all made even more uncomfortable by the fact that the NBA is scheduled to play exhibition games this week in China, a preseason tour that Adam Silver is supposed to be a part of.)

Morey, and others in the NBA, are releasing statements left and right

Here’s what Morey tweeted on Sunday:

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.

(The Ringer reported that Morey’s job might be in jeopardy, though that has been refuted by several other journalists.)

James Harden, alongside Russell Westbrook at a practice in Japan, spoke up, too: We apologize. You know, we love China. We love playing there. For both of us individually, we go there once or twice a year. They show us the most important love."

The NBA released its own statement on Sunday, a carefully worded jumble that ended up not saying a whole lot:

"We recognize that the views expressed by Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey have deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China, which is regrettable.
"While Daryl has made it clear that his tweet does not represent the Rockets or the NBA, the values of the league support individuals' educating themselves and sharing their views on matters important to them."

In other words: We really don’t want to make China mad, because China makes us a lot of money, but we really want America to think we’re a bastion of liberal thinking, because that makes us a lot of money, too.

New Brooklyn Nets owner Joe Tsai, a Taiwanese billionaire who is executive vice chairman of Chinese tech giant Alibaba, offered a far more nuanced take on the situation, in the form of an open letter, which you can read here.

In it, he manages to both throw Morey a bone and call him uninformed:

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.
The one thing that is terribly misunderstood, and often ignored, by the western press and those critical of China is that 1.4 billion Chinese citizens stand united when it comes to the territorial integrity of China and the country’s sovereignty over her homeland. This issue is non-negotiable.

The backlash to the quelling of the backlash

Now, the NBA is catching bipartisan flack from most corners of America, which has accused the league of prioritizing money over supporting democracy. Here are a few of the denouncements.

Deadspin: The NBA is happy to play China’s game

Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke: “The only thing the NBA should be apologizing for is their blatant prioritization of profits over human rights. What an embarrassment.”

(Beto, the NBA is an 'it', not a 'their.' Let us know if you need a copy editor.)

Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang: The Chinese government banning the Rockets is a terrible move.”

Texas senator Ted Cruz: “As a lifelong Houston Rockets fan, I was proud to see (Daryl Morey) call out the Chinese Communist Party’s repressive treatment of protestors in Hong Kong. Now, in pursuit of big $$, the NBA is shamefully retreating.”

The Wall Street Journal: The NBA throws a brick in China

Did you ever think, in your wildest dreams, that Deadspin, the Wall Street Journal, Beto O’Rourke, Andrew Yang, and Ted Cruz could all agree on anything?


We are an NBA newsletter, not a political newsletter, so we won’t try to explain the Hong Kong protests, but here’s a video from Vox that we found to be informative

[READ (from 2018): The NBA is fake woke]


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