The NBA went into damage control mode Sunday after one of its general managers angered China by tweeting support for pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.
It started on Friday when Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey tweeted: “Fight For Freedom. Stand With Hong Kong.”
He quickly deleted the tweet. But not before it attracted attention in Beijing, where the Communist Party of China has for months sought to put down an anti-government uprising in its territory.
On Sunday, the Chinese Basketball Association announced that it was suspending cooperation with the Rockets. Tencent, a media partner of the NBA in China with a five-year streaming deal worth $1.5 billion, and China’s state television also said they wouldn’t be airing Rockets games.
NBA games draw huge viewership in China, with millions watching games primarily through streaming platforms. The Rockets have been popular in the communist country since signing Chinese star Yao Ming in 2002. Ming now heads the Chinese Basketball Association.
Morey quickly backtracked. He tweeted Sunday that he “did not intend my tweet to cause any offense” and had “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,” he continued. “My tweets are my own and in no way represent the Rockets or the NBA.”
2/ 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.
— Daryl Morey (@dmorey) October 7, 2019
The NBA then issued its own statement, saying, “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.”
The league affirmed that Morey’s tweet did not represent the league and expressed “great respect for the history and culture of China and hope that sports and the NBA can be used to bridge cultural divides and bring people together.”
Bipartian disgust after NBA caves to China over Hong Kong
A number of U.S. politicians criticized the NBA on Twitter Sunday for allegedly abandoning American values.
“As a lifelong @HoustonRockets fan, I was proud to see @dmorey call out the Chinese Communist Party’s repressive treatment of protesters in Hong Kong,” Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texas, said. “Now, in pursuit of $$, the @NBA is shamefully retreating.”
Sen. Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican, referenced allegations of human rights abuses in China, including the repression of Uighur Muslims.
“Chinese govt has a million people locked in concentration camps & is trying to brutally repress Hong Kong demonstrators – and NBA wants to ‘bridge cultural divides’? Cultural divides?” he said.
Rep. Tom Malinowski, a New Jersey Democrat, said that China was using its economic power to censor speech by Americans in the United States.
“And the #NBA, which (correctly) has no problem with players/employees criticizing our gov’t, is now apologizing for criticizing the Chinese gov’t,” he added. “This is shameful and cannot stand.”
Former National Review writer Jonah Goldberg was among the conservative commentators who said the league’s response proved the emptiness of its woke politics.
I am so disgusted with the @NBA right now. I’m pulling for Hong Kong, of course, but China is literally an apartheid state committing cultural genocide and religious persecution on a mass scale. This should be a no brainer. Woke at home, lickspittles to power abroad I guess.
— Jonah Goldberg (@JonahNRO) October 7, 2019
Business Insider editor Anthony Fisher noted that the league has previously claimed to support players and coaches speaking out on political issues — whether that means bashing President Donald Trump or decrying “white privilege.”
Ben Rhodes, a former top aide to President Barack Obama, called the NBA “disgraceful” for failing to honor the courage on display “the streets of Hong Kong”
Right-wing pundit Stephen Miller was surprised that anyone still needed proof that “the NBA sucks.”
I’m just kind of pissed it took sympathizing with a brutal communist dictatorship for everyone to realize the NBA sucks.
— Stephen Miller (@redsteeze) October 7, 2019
However, the Nets’ Joe Tsai, the NBA’s first Chinese owner, came out Sunday against Morey’s statement. In a lengthy Facebook post, he acknowledged the American right to free speech but suggested Morey was wrong to upset the league’s many Chinese fans by supporting “a separatist movement in a Chinese territory.”
“The NBA is a fan-first league,” he said.
Tsai went on to educate Americans about China’s traumatic history of foreign invasions. As a result, he said: “1.4 billion Chinese citizens stand united when it comes to the territorial integrity of China and the country’s sovereignty over her homeland.”
When it comes to Hong Hong, he added: “This issue is non-negotiable.”
Also Sunday, The New York Times translated the NBA’s statement to Chinese fans from Mandarin. It went even further than the English, expressing disappointment in Morey’s “inappropriate” tweet.
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
Amid escalating backlash to Tsai and the NBA, a league spokesman told Times NBA writer Sopan Deb that the statements were meant to be the same.
“There should be no discrepancy on the statement issued earlier today,” said Mike Bass. “We have seen various interpretations of the translation of the Mandarin version, but our statement in English is the league’s official statement.”