On Friday, Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets, tweeted an image that read, “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong,” a slogan that has become a refrain among demonstrators in the embattled city, which has just undergone its 18th straight weekend of protests.
The tweet was deleted, but not before igniting a firestorm. Deadspin was among the first on the story, pointing out on Saturday that “Morey’s innocent endorsement of civil liberties may have put the NBA in an awkward place.
The league has spent over a decade cultivating business and media relationships in China in a campaign to make basketball the country’s most popular sport, raking in lots of money along the way. The Rockets, one of the most beloved NBA teams in China, have been central to this effort.
The Rockets may have been the most popular team in all of China when Yao Ming was on the roster from the 2002-03 season to his retirement in 2011. And as recently as last year, according to a survey, they were Chinese fans’ second most popular team, behind the Golden State Warriors. In other words, there’s good reason why team owner Tilman Fertitta tried to distance his organization from Morey’s personal opinion:
Listen….@dmorey does NOT speak for the @HoustonRockets. Our presence in Tokyo is all about the promotion of the @NBA internationally and we are NOT a political organization. @espn https://t.co/yNyQFtwTTi
— Tilman Fertitta (@TilmanJFertitta) October 5, 2019
But it wasn’t enough to stave off the all-too-predictable Chinese response — you probably know what happened next, because it’s the same thing that has happened to a growing list of foreign businesses in China. Over the weekend, commentators in sports and politics lit up social media — via Radii:
“Sack him or no business,” reads one succinct comment that’s been heavily upvoted under Global Times’ reporting of the story on microblogging platform Weibo. Another of the most popular comments on the same post calls for Tencent – who recently renewed their big money deal to broadcast NBA games – to not show the Rockets in the upcoming season.
Sports commentator Yang Yi’s message that “you can’t eat China, then insult China” (“eat” here being akin to “grow fat off”) has also made headlines, in addition to going viral and becoming a new nationalism-rallying hashtag on Weibo.
The Chinese Basketball Association, whose president is the aforementioned Yao Ming, suspended its relationship with the team. And then Chinese companies began pulling sponsorships. Per the Daily Beast:
On Sunday, the Rockets’ Chinese sponsors, sportswear brand Li-Ning and Shanghai Pudong Development Bank (SPD Bank) Credit Card Center, announced that they were suspending their support of the team. China’s basketball association also said it will stop cooperating with the Texas team.
The Chinese consulate felt it necessary to jump in (at least the Rockets can take solace in knowing they’re a really big deal):
We are deeply shocked by the erroneous comments on Hong Kong made by Mr. Daryl Morey, general manager of the Houston Rockets. We have lodged representations and expressed strong dissatisfaction with the Houston Rockets, and urged the latter to correct the error and take immediate concrete measures to eliminate the adverse impact.
The NBA, finding itself catching strays, suddenly felt it needed to protect its business interests in China, so it also issued a statement:
We recognize that the views expressed by Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey have deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China, which is regrettable. While Daryl has made it clear that his tweet does not represent the Rockets or the NBA, the values of the league support individuals’ educating themselves and sharing their views on matters important to them. We have great respect for the history and culture of China and hope that sports and the NBA can be used as a unifying force to bridge cultural divides and bring people together.
This is the same league that, two years ago, threw its official support behind a “social consciousness” movement via a letter from the commissioner that read, in part: “Critical issues that affect our society also impact you directly. Fortunately, you are not only the world’s greatest basketball players — you have real power to make a difference in the world, and we want you know that the Players Association and the League are always available to help you figure out the most meaningful way to make that difference.”
The NBA’s statement, naturally, put the league in the crosshairs of angry Americans, including a bevy of lawmakers. All of this, we remind you, caused by a tweet.
China is using its economic power to silence critics—even those in the U.S.
The United States must lead with our values and speak out for pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong, and not allow American citizens to be bullied by an authoritarian government. https://t.co/87U4jgsAAp
— Julián Castro (@JulianCastro) October 7, 2019
— Ted Cruz (@tedcruz) October 7, 2019
The Hong Kong protests, if it wasn’t mainstream news before in the U.S., certainly is now, after landing in the middle of the sporting mainstream.
Joe Tsai, executive vice chair of Alibaba and owner of the Brooklyn Nets, weighed in on his Facebook page, implying that the Hong Kong protests are a “separatist movement,” even though the protesters have never demanded independence from the mainland:
Fans in China are calling for an explanation – if they are not getting it from the Houston Rockets, then it is natural that they ask others associated with the NBA to express a view.
The NBA is a fan-first league. When hundreds of millions of fans are furious over an issue, the league, and anyone associated with the NBA, will have to pay attention. As a Governor of one of the 30 NBA teams, and a Chinese having spent a good part of my professional life in China, I need to speak up.
What is the problem with people freely expressing their opinion? This freedom is an inherent American value and the NBA has been very progressive in allowing players and other constituents a platform to speak out on issues.
The problem is, there are certain topics that are third-rail issues in certain countries, societies and communities.
Supporting a separatist movement in a Chinese territory is one of those third-rail issues, not only for the Chinese government, but also for all citizens in China.
“What is the problem with people freely expressing their opinion?” Tsai asks. I assume the question isn’t for Daryl Morey, because if the “problem” isn’t clear, the consequences for “freely expressing” certainly are: You’ll be harassed by Chinese internet users, your organization will be boycotted by Chinese businesses, and the embassy of a government that really should have better things to do will express “strong dissatisfaction.”
Morey, for what it’s worth, didn’t exactly apologize (unlike James Harden), but it’s probably safe to assume he won’t be wading into this morass again.
2/ I have always appreciated the significant support our Chinese fans and sponsors have provided and I would hope that those who are upset will know that offending or misunderstanding them was not my intention. My tweets are my own and in no way represent the Rockets or the NBA.
— Daryl Morey (@dmorey) October 7, 2019