The NBA’s reaction to one of its executives speaking out on the anti-government protests in Hong Kong has received criticism from several US politicians.
The controversy started when the Houston Rockets general manager, Daryl Morey, tweeted his support for protesters in Hong Kong, where police have used live ammunition on civilians after months of demonstrations. Morey deleted the tweet shortly afterwards and the NBA and the Rockets distanced themselves from his statement. The NBA said it was “regrettable” that the tweet had caused offence in China, and the Rockets said Morey’s views did not represent those of the team.
The NBA’s statement is jarring to some, given the fact that the league has won plaudits for encouraging its players to express their views on social issues they believe are important. Texas senator Ted Cruz, who is a Rockets fan, condemned the NBA’s stance on Sunday. “We’re better than this; human rights shouldn’t be for sale & the NBA shouldn’t be assisting Chinese communist censorship,” he wrote on Twitter.
Julian Castro, a Democratic presidential candidate, expressed similar views. “China is using its economic power to silence critics – even those in the US,” he tweeted. “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.”
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
There has been a widespread backlash to Morey’s tweet in China. The country’s basketball association is headed by former Rockets star Yao Ming and described Morey’s tweet as “improper remarks regarding Hong Kong”. Chinese state television and media company Tencent, which has a $1.5bn deal to televise the NBA in China over the next five years, have said they will cut ties with the Rockets. The Communist Party’s official newspaper, People’s Daily, wrote that Morey’s comments were “hurtful to Chinese basketball fans and is also an affront to the Chinese people.”
It is easy to see why the Rockets and the NBA are eager to avoid alienating fans in China. The league has been growing its fanbase in China successfully for three decades, and many players have lucrative sponsorship deals in the country. The Rockets in particular have a strong following in China due to Ming, one of his country’s most popular ever athletes.
“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,” the league’s chief communications officer, Mike Bass, said on Sunday.
LeBron James, the league’s biggest and most marketable star, is in China this week, where he will play for the Los Angeles Lakers against the Brooklyn Nets. The Nets owner is Joe Tsai, a co-founder of the Chinese retail giant Alibaba. Tsai said that Morey had touched on “a third-rail issue” by tweeting his support for the Hong Kong protestors.
“By now I hope you can begin to understand why the Daryl Morey tweet is so damaging to the relationship with our fans in China,” Tsai wrote on Facebook. “I don’t know Daryl personally. I am sure he’s a fine NBA general manager, and I will take at face value his subsequent apology that he was not as well informed as he should have been. But the hurt that this incident has caused will take a long time to repair.”
On Monday, the Rockets’ star player, James Harden, aligned his views with those of his team and the NBA. “We apologise. You know, we love China. We love playing there,” said Harden, who was voted the league’s most valuable player in 2018. “For both of us individually, we go there once or twice a year. They show us the most important love.”
The new NBA season starts on 22 October.