One Tweet Threatens 30 Years of NBA Expansion into China

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The controversy began on October 6, 2019, after Daryl Morey, the general manager of the NBA’s Houston Rockets, tweeted about the ongoing pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, China. Since the 1980s, the NBA has spent millions of dollars investing in Asian markets, including China, hoping to grow the game of basketball. For example, the NBA has helped build basketball courts, given broadcasting rights for free, and played preseason games in China and Japan.

However, Morey’s tweet threatens years of progress and what has otherwise been an extremely fruitful venture. Morey tweeted, and then quickly deleted, a picture with the phrase “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong.” The tweet was immediately met with backlash from supporters of the Chinese communist government.

The Chinese consulate in Houston, Texas, released a statement expressing its “strong dissatisfaction” with Morey’s tweet, stating that “anybody with conscience would support the efforts made by the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region to safeguard Hong Kong’s social stability.”

Further, Chinese sponsors also began to cut ties with the Rockets and the NBA on-mass. For example, sportswear brand Li-Ning, which sponsors a handful of NBA players, announced it would suspend business ties with the NBA; Tencent, the NBA’s exclusive digital partner in China, announced it will suspend business relations with the Rockets; the Chinese Basketball Association canceled planned exhibition games with the NBA G League; an NBA Cares event in Shanghai was canceled by the Chinese board of education; Chinese state television announced it would no longer air the Rockets’ preseason games; and while the Los Angeles Lakers-Brooklyn Nets exhibition game in Shanghai is still scheduled to be played on October 10, 2019, media sessions that were scheduled for October 9, 2019, were canceled. 

While many in the United States called on the NBA, and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, to “stand up to China,” Silver’s response has been met with harsh criticism. Some claim Silver pandered to China and was more concerned about the NBA’s bottom line when he went so far as to say he and the NBA were “apologetic” over the outcome and reaction of Morey’s tweet. However, Silver also noted, “We are not apologizing for Daryl exercising his freedom of expression.”

Silver appeared to compound his misstep when he spoke with a Tokyo-based news corporation and said, “There is no doubt, the economic impact is already clear. There have already been fairly dramatic consequences from that tweet, and I have read some of the media suggesting that we are not supporting Daryl Morey, but in fact we have.”

Dissatisfied with Silver’s response, a bipartisan group of Unites Stated lawmakers sent a letter to Silver condemning the NBA’s response to the controversy, criticizing it for failing to put “fundamental democratic rights ahead of profit” and for being ill-equipped to deal with the foreseeable “challenges of doing business in a country run by a repressive single party government.” This group has called upon the NBA to suspend its operations in China.

Silver does not appear open to suspending operations in China–in fact, he plans on attending the Lakers-Nets exhibition game in Shanghai. This controversy appears far from over, and looks as if it could spread. On October 9, 2019, a group of NBA fans, wearing t-shirts and holding a sign with the phrases “Free Hong Kong” and “Google Uyghurs,” had their signs confiscated by Capitol One Arena security, home of the NBA’s Washington Wizards.

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