The ongoing Hong Kong protests regarding the region’s relationship with mainland China have spread throughout the sporting world. FIFA fined the Hong Kong Football Association for protesting the Chinese national anthem, and video game giant Blizzard Entertainment banned and revoked the pay of a professional esports player after he expressed support for the protestors in Hong Kong during a post-game interview.
Yet, no response has been so controversial as the NBA’s in regards to Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey’s now-deleted tweet two weeks ago.
The tweet, consisting of seven words calling for international support of Hong Kong protestors, set the basketball world on fire. Early reports have estimated that the backlash stemming from the Chinese market could cost the Rockets about $25 million and cause other potential revenue losses for the league as a whole.
Exhibition games and events with the Chinese Basketball Association were canceled and television deals with companies like Vivo and Tencent to broadcast NBA games during the regular season were also revoked. Chinese basketball forums now only show 29 teams, with the Rockets having been ominously omitted from many of them.
Other related sports corporations have also distanced themselves from the incident, with Nike removing Houston Rockets related merchandise from their Chinese stores and ESPN banning all mention of Chinese politics, despite the network discussing the tweet. The team’s close relationship with the country of China itself adds another layer to the scandal.
Yao Ming, China’s most beloved basketball player, spent his entire NBA career in Houston and prior to the tweet, the Rockets had been dubbed “China’s Team” by many avid Chinese NBA fans.
Perhaps the most appalling aspect of the incident was the NBA’s response to Morey. The NBA issued a statement the next day, stating that Morey’s tweet was “regrettable” and “does not represent the Rockets or the NBA.”
The NBA has long attempted to market itself as a progressive league. While other major sports leagues attempted to create a distinct line between play and politics, the NBA has supported athletes such as Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson in their pursuits of social justice.
More recently, they’ve ousted multiple owners who have expressed bigoted opinions, moved the All-Star game away from Charlotte in 2017 after the state passed its infamous bathroom bill and allowed players and coaches alike to make political moves of their own — whether that be outward support for people like Colin Kaepernick or criticism of current President Donald Trump.
And yet the NBA has revealed its hand — demonstrating that for them, only money matters in the end. In an attempt to maintain its progressive appearance in the United States, Adam Silver, the NBA’s commissioner, recently backtracked on his original comments regarding Morey’s tweet stating, “The NBA will not put itself in a position of regulating what players, employees and team owners say or will not say.” This feeble attempt to offset the considerable amount of domestic attention the affair received in the United States was proven a sham, however.
In China, the league posted a photo of its statement on its Weibo account, which is China’s most popular social media platform. While the statement was in English, the caption was the same statement translated into Mandarin. According to multiple news sites, however, the Mandarin version rebukes Morey’s statement directly, saying the association is “extremely disappointed” in Morey due to his “inappropriate speech.” In contrast, the English statement does not openly criticize Morey — it only “recognize(s)” that his words “deeply offended” Chinese fans.
It’s almost laughable how quickly the NBA changes its position on the issue at hand based on public opinion and corporate backing.
But since when has the NBA ever bent its head so meekly and accepted such an adverse reaction to something one of its employees said?
Certainly not when players LeBron James and Kevin Durant pushed back at criticism of their involvement in politics, or when coaches Steve Kerr and Gregg Popovich condemned the government’s handling of gun violence and racial issues. Certainly not when former player Jason Collins became the first openly gay male athlete in a major American sports league. And most certainly not when Turkish center Enes Kanter continued to denounce President Erdogan of Turkey, despite multiple arrest warrants and extradition requests.
Yet, when Morey posted a simple tweet, just seven words promoting a cause in a controversial issue, the NBA chose to remain vague in its response. If anything, the Morey scandal has demonstrated that if forced to choose between money and the freedoms of its employees, the NBA will take the route that leads to the most profit.
And if that is the case, isn’t the league telling Morey and all other members of the NBA that if there’s money on the line, they should just shut up and dribble?