On Oct 4, 2019, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey sent the NBA into a firestorm after posting a since-deleted tweet supporting protests in Hong Kong. The tweet read, “Fight for Freedom, Stand with Hong Kong.”
Chinese officials were not pleased with Morey’s tweet, and effectively banned the Houston Rockets from being broadcast in China. The tweet was highly polarizing for a myriad of reasons that have helped to, once again, add fuel to the fire of politics in sports. This is particularly bad news for the NBA, which had been noted as one of the most progressive leagues in sports up to this point.
The Chinese response to Morey’s tweet was not simply about the content of his tweets; it was also about the relationship between the country and the organization. After selecting Yao Ming with the first overall pick in 2002, the Rockets have been the most popular NBA team in China by a large margin. After Yao retired, he would become the commissioner of the Chinese Basketball Association, and would continue to be a liaison between the NBA and China. That is, until recent events made Yao suspend its operations with the NBA.
Not only did Morey’s position with the Rockets cause controversy with the Chinese government, the timing also disturbed his colleagues within the NBA. Both the Rockets themselves and numerous other teams were in China to play preseason games. This created a very awkward situation for the players to be in, not knowing how to answer questions pertaining to the controversy.
With all of this being said, Morey’s was an exercise of his freedom of speech and was not particularly belligerent or disparaging. This is why many have been critical of the stance that the league has taken which some have viewed to be lacking in support of Morey and attempting to mend the fence with China. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has said in multiple statements that he, “supports Morey’s right to free speech and said the NBA will not censor any of its members.”
Still, the NBA is a league known for its political outspokenness. For example, players almost walked out of a playoff game following the leaking of tapes in which former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling made racist remarks about Black people. In addition, LeBron James outright called President Trump a ‘bum’ on Twitter last year—it is understandably surprising to see the league somewhat bite its tongue on these issues.
The surprise is lost, however, when the full extent of the leagues financial ties in China are revealed. A case could be made that basketball is bigger in China than it is stateside. Take the fact that there were more than 50 million more Chinese viewers than American viewers during the 2018 NBA Finals.
Also consider that Nike, the league’s official outfitter, holds a huge share of the Chinese footwear market and you can begin to see that Morey’s tweet was more than just something for the news cycle. Some anticipate that the salary cap will decrease by millions next year as a result of the fallout from Morey’s tweet.
While the eye of the storm has passed, the NBA and its future relationship with China remains questionable. The immense growth that the league has made in the 21st Century was made possible by expanding the game globally. The now infamous cap-spike of 2016 that allowed for Kevin Durant to sign with the Warriors would not have happened if not for the immense revenue the league gained through China.
How will Adam Silver move forward now that Chinese viewership is at risk? Will the league continue to be as outspoken following the backlash from this incident? How does the league balance sensibility with censorship? None of these questions have definite answers, but much like the NFL, the league is now under the spotlight to do the right thing.