GM’s Hong Kong tweet reveals NBA’s true priorities

Maybe better than any other professional league, the NBA has largely held itself accountable to becoming a vehicle for social justice in our vastly changing political climate. Players have spoken out about police brutality, owners have been fired for racist remarks and some international hoopers have even called out their oppressive native governments, like the Turkish-born Celtics center Enes Kanter. Yet recently, the NBA is catching some flack due to its questionable handling of a tweet that created a dispute with the Chinese government.

The NBA has a reputation of being “the woke league,” as social justice has been a key talking point for players and coaches in the league, particularly for stars like LeBron James. Last week however, Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey sparked a fierce controversy with a comment on the political demonstrations occurring in Hong Kong. Morey’s tweet voiced his support for the people of Hong Kong, who are currently staging a political revolution in China. For those unaware, since June, the people of Hong Kong have fought to keep their political independence from China through activism and grassroots revolution, something that has been heavily pushed back against by the mainland Chinese government. Protestors have been met with violent opposition from Chinese police forces, who have brutally beaten protesters in the streets and arrested protesters (BBC News, “Hong Kong: Timeline of extradition protests,” 09.04.2019).

Morey’s tweet (which was quickly deleted) read: “fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong” (NBCNews, “Daryl Morey’s tweet on Hong Kong shows how China is calling the shots in the NBA,” 10.08.2019). Despite the tweet’s quick removal, screenshots of it flooded the internet, becoming viral across China and in the United States. Chinese NBA fans quickly started to criticize Morey for his comments, resulting in a massive economic and social blow to Morey and the Houston Rockets. The Chinese Basketball Association, which is run by former Rocket Yao Ming, quickly condemned Morey’s statement, calling it “inappropriate,” and later cut all economic ties with the Houston Rockets (NBA, “Rockets working to mend ties with China after executive’s Hong Kong tweet,” 10.07.2019). This means no streaming of games, no reporting of scores and no sale of merchandise. Morey quickly walked his comment back, stating that he did not intend his tweet to “cause offense to any Rockets fans and friends…in China,” (Twitter, [@]dmorey, 10.06.2019). Even Rockets stars James Harden and Russell Westbrook issued apologies on behalf of the team.

The most interesting development occurred after this, when the NBA sent out two separate media releases regarding Morey’s statement, one being an English transcript for American viewers, and another in Mandarin intended for the NBA’s Chinese audience.

What’s interesting is the difference between the NBA’s tone in each statement. In the American version, the league’s commissioner Adam Silver stated it was “regrettable” that Morey’s statement offended Chinese fans, but that “the values of the league support individuals educating themselves and sharing their views on matters important to them.” However, the Chinese transcript contained a much more hostile tone, calling the tweet “inappropriate” and stating that the NBA is “extremely disappointed” with Morey’s statement (abcnews, “NBA’s reaction to Morey tweet differs in English, Chinese,” 10.07.2019). The fallout would continue as the days progressed, with scheduled broadcasts of all NBA preseason games in China being canceled by the Chinese national state television network (Washington Post, “Chinese state TV cancels broadcasts of NBA preseason games and sponsors drop out in dispute over Hong Kong comments,” 10.08.2019).

This marks a clear departure from the NBA’s ostensible social responsibility. The NBA has no problem having Martin Luther King Day games, or banning former Clippers owner Donald Sterling for racist remarks, but now appears to have no issue bending their knee to a politically oppressive regime. Why is that? Simple. Money.

Last season, the Houston Rockets were the second most popular team in China, trailing only the Golden State Warriors. An interesting detail to note is the NBA recently inked a five-year partnership worth $1.5 billion with Tencent (which also suspended all broadcasts of NBA events in response to Morey’s tweet), a Chinese media super mogul (CNBC, “Chinese state media and Tencent suspend broadcast of NBA preseason games in China,” 10.09.2019). The deal gave full streaming rights to Tencent, giving them complete control over NBA media in China. The NBA has been doing everything in their power to increase revenue, from allowing sponsorships on jerseys to an extensive effort to globalize the game, with teams playing throughout the season in London, Mumbai, China and South Africa. Does the NBA really want to lose its biggest foreign market over a single tweet?

Harden and Westbrook have their own personal interests in mind as well. Harden has built a brand for himself as the MVP with the world’s best beard. And don’t forget that Adidas deal he signed. Adidas’ largest source of revenue is the Asia-Pacific region, and I can only imagine how much the Chinese love his sneakers. Same thing with Westbrook, a Jordan Brand athlete. Does it really make sense for Westbrook to lose on tens of millions of dollars because of something going on across the world that has no effect on him? For both of these two superstars, of course not. But as individuals sharing a national spotlight, players and coaches should set an example as drivers of free speech and social activism.

The NBA is rapidly growing monetarily; there is no doubt about that. As it is one of my favorite sports, I’ve loved seeing basketball grow into a global sport in front of my eyes. But what I’d like to see out of the league is morality. Although it may not be directly explicit, the league has chosen to take an immoral stand, siding with a Chinese government that has not permitted Chinese citizens their ability to speak freely and constructively criticize the government without punishment. This is the same league that moved the 2017 All Star game from Charlotte to Las Vegas as a result of the state of North Carolina passing the H2B bill, which severely limited the rights of transgender people. This is the same league where teams wore “I can’t breathe” shirts following the death of Eric Garner. This is the same league that had players and coaches speak out against our president. How much of this past “activism” has been motivated by social concern, and how much of it was simply for monetary gain? It’s hard to tell. Ultimately, I can’t say I’m surprised by the league’s decision to value money over politics, but I hope this can be an eye-opener to the public that the NBA is socially conscious—but only as long as it doesn’t hurt their bottom line.

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