Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey sent out a tweet on Sunday night saying “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.” The simple message in support of pro-democracy protestors upset NBA media partners, sponsors and basketball officials in mainland China. Morey eventually deleted the tweet after the Rockets issued a statement calling his comments “regrettable”, but the damage was done; the Chinese Basketball Association, Li Ning and the Shanghai Pudong Development Bank Card Center all announced they would be suspending their partnerships or affiliations with the franchise and/or league.
The timing of the controversy could not be worse. The Nets and Lakers are scheduled to play a pair of games and commissioner Adam Silver and Nets governor and Alibaba co-founder Joe Tsai are set to hold a press conference in China this week. CCTV (China’s State broadcaster) has announced it will not be showing the pre-season exhibitions and fans and local celebrities alike are planning to boycott the games.
Howie Long-Short: It’s not often that a single tweet from the general manager of a sports team sets-off an international firestorm. Len Elmore, a 10 year ABA/NBA player, former attorney and current faculty at Columbia University, explained that Morey’s comments quickly made waves halfway around the world because “the Chinese are particularly attuned to social media and they really believe it’s injurious to have a negative image passed over social channels.” Presumably the Chinese aren’t pleased with the optics that mass rallies against their government presents.
The league put out a statement on Weibo saying it was “extremely disappointed in [Morey’s] inappropriate comment”, a clear indication that it’s only willing to take a stand on social issues when it’s good for business. China remains the league’s largest international market and one it cannot afford to lose (much of the NBA’s future growth is expected to come from Asia). How big is the Chinese market? Elmore says, “NBA China – not including sponsorship pacts – is currently worth $4 billion per year. There are 500 million people in the country watching games on television and 300 million playing the game of basketball.”
Silver’s comments Monday saying “that Daryl Morey is supported in terms of his ability to exercise his freedom of expression” is nonsense. Remember, Morey pulled his initial tweet down. It’s unlikely he did so because his feelings on the protests suddenly changed.
It’s important to point out that the Chinese have suspended relationships with the NBA and the Houston based franchise – they have not put an end to them. Elmore called it a “shot across the bow”, but says there’s no real teeth to the threat. “In the long-run the Chinese government recognizes the value of the NBA and isn’t going to cut ties. There’s too much money at stake for them to get radical in their response.” Tencent says they are planning to blackout Rockets games and could theoretically maintain a boycott of the franchise indefinitely, but that won’t hurt Houston’s bottom line; overseas media rights are sold collectively.
Tsai bought the Nets with the intention of tapping into the Chinese market, so his comments siding with the authoritarian regime were to be expected, but as Elmore points out “they failed to address the [Chinese government’s] attempt to erode the civil liberties of Hong Kong citizens or the democratic reform that’s not taking place – even though it was promised.”
Fan Marino: Elmore agreed that league’s business in China runs counter to the narrative that it’s the most ‘woke’ of the pro sports leagues. “[The NBA] talks about being a value based, progressive organization – particularly relating to civil liberties and human rights. To say they respect the history and culture of China, when communism has ruled [the country] for the last 70 years, there have been brutal regimes and most recently they’ve been imprisoning Chinese Muslims is hard to reconcile.” The league won’t refer to the individual who owns a franchise as an “owner”, but they’ll do business in a control state. The NBA has lost all credibility as a socially conscious organization now that “people can – rightly or wrongly – point to money being a determining factor in their decisions.”
It’s disappointing that outspoken personalities like LeBron James, Steve Kerr and Gregg Popovich have failed to speak out in support of the protesters – and by proxy Morey. Elmore says we shouldn’t be surprised. “They’re not going to speak out as quickly [as they did with Donald Sterling or the discriminatory legislation against the LGBT community in North Carolina], simply because of the business ramifications.” Unfortunately, Morey being forced to walk back his comments is likely to have a chilling effect on others taking a public stand on controversial issues in the future.
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