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NBA Forced to Choose Between Its Values And Its Chinese Business Interests

Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey during a meeting with press in November, 2018
Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey during a meeting with press in November, 2018. (Photo: YouTube)

The NBA is being accused of prioritizing profit over human rights issues after a tweet by NBA general manager Daryl Morey angered Chinese government officials.

The NBA is facing criticism for apologizing to China for a tweet made by Houston Rockets’ general manager Daryl Morey that expressed support for the ongoing pro-democracy Hong Kong protests against the authoritarian Chinese government. In response to Morey’s tweet, a reposted image that read “Fight for Freedom. Stand for Hong Kong,” the Chinese government, the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) and several Chinese businesses immediately cut ties with the Rockets.

Daryl Morey Tweet Creates PR Crisis for NBA

The issue is testing the NBA’s reputation as the most progressive major American sports league against its massive commercial interests in China, perhaps the NBA’s biggest market for international growth. Almost 500 million people in China watched the NBA on Chinese company Tencent Holdings last year, which Axios compares to their “League Pass.” The media company, which has a “a five-year streaming deal worth $1.5 billion,” with the NBA, “said they wouldn’t be airing Rockets games” anymore, as per NPR.

Critics quickly pointed out differences in the NBA’s official English and Mandarin statements on the controversy. A statement by NBA spokesperson Mike Bass said the league was aware Morey’s comments “have deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China, which is regrettable.” Standard PhD candidate Yiqin Fu said the Mandarin translation has a more apologetic tone, with the NBA writing that they are “extremely disappointed in Morey’s inappropriate statement. No doubt he’s severely hurt the feelings of CN fans.”

Morey also quickly deleted his post and apologized on Sunday, tweeting that he was “merely voicing one thought, based on one interpretation, of one complicated event.”

The NBA’s attempts to placate China while simultaneously defending its commitment to free speech is a strategy that “is working quite miserably,” wrote the Atlantic’s Jemele Hill.

NBA Beefs Up Response, Freedom of Expression Support

On Wednesday NBA commissioner Adam Silver took a stronger stance, saying, “The long-held values of the NBA are to support freedom of expression. … And in this case, Daryl Morey, as general manager of the Houston Rockets, enjoys that right as one of our employees.”

Silver also discussed Yao Ming, a former Houston Rockets player and Hall of Famer who is a major figure in his home country and the head of the government-directed Chinese Basketball Association, which suspended its relationship with the Rockets after Morey’s tweet. Ming’s role as a Chinese superstar in the league contributed to basketball’s huge popularity in China.

“Our office has communicated directly with Yao Ming and he is extremely upset,” said Silver. “I’m not sure he quite accepts how we are operating our business right now. And again, I accept that we have a difference of opinion. … He is extremely hot at the moment and I understand it.”

Are Corporations Pandering to China?

Critics argue the NBA’s mostly tepid response is characteristic of corporate America’s attitude towards China’s humanitarian abuses. While the NBA served as a counterexample to the NFL in widely supporting Colin Kaepernick’s protests against police brutality, it has capitulated on Chinese oppression, just as many other US corporations speak of social issues at home but refuse to comment on the Uighur concentration camps or Hong Kong protests.

“When it has to do with market access in China and profits … they will bend over backwards to apologize,” Bonnie Glaser, an expert on China at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Axios’ Erica Pandey.

“It’s an authoritarian government, and the Communist Party is in control,” Glaser told Axios. “They are able to have impact on what their citizens do, and they can mobilize their citizens to hold boycotts if they want do that.”

As Pandey notes, this isn’t the first time China has told an American company what to do. Marriott, for example, capitulated to China after the communist party blocked its website for listing Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet and Macau as separate countries. “We don’t support separatist groups that subvert the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China,” the hotel company said in an apology. The Gap, major airlines like American, United and Delta, and major Hollywood productions have also submitted to Chinese demands on its “territorial integrity.”

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Peter Castagno

Peter Castagno is a freelance writer with a Master’s degree in International Conflict Resolution. He has traveled throughout the Middle East and Latin America to gain firsthand insight in some of the world’s most troubled areas, and he plans on publishing his first book in 2019.

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