Friday, NBA general manager Daryl Morey of the Houston Rockets tweeted the phrase “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.” The since-deleted post implicitly endorsed the protests against Chinese encroachment that pro-democracy demonstrators have been conducting since June in the semi-autonomous Hong Kong “special administrative region.” In response, a number of the NBA’s big-money sponsors and partners in China—who are ultimately controlled by the autocratic Chinese government—condemned Morey’s tweet and pulled out of deals with the Rockets. On Sunday night, the NBA issued the following statement of contrition.
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’ education 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.
According to the AP, a message the league posted in Mandarin on Chinese social media went even further, stating that the NBA was “extremely disappointed” in Morey’s “inappropriate” comment. (An NBA spokesman then said that “there should be no discrepancy on the statement” and that “our statement in English is the league’s official statement,” which doesn’t really explain anything.) New Brooklyn Nets owner Joseph Tsai, the U.S.-educated executive vice chairman of the Chinese Alibaba Group, wrote on Facebook that “1.4 billion Chinese citizens stand united when it comes to the territorial integrity of China and the country’s sovereignty over her homeland”—i.e., against a democratic, self-governing Hong Kong—and that Morey’s comment “will take a long time to repair.”
In sum, the NBA’s leaders have said that endorsements of democratic self-government are “regrettable,” do not “represent” the league, and are “deeply” offensive to every single person in China, apparently including the ones who are currently in prison camps for saying China should have a democratic government (or for being Muslim).
The sentiment has brought a truly impressive array of U.S. political figures and pundits together in outrage, from Republican Sens. Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, Ben Sasse, and Rick Scott to Democratic Sens. Brian Schatz and Chuck Schumer to presidential candidates Julián Castro, Beto O’Rourke, and Andrew Yang to former Obama administration foreign policy adviser Ben Rhodes to Fox News’ Laura Ingraham to the radical sports leftists at Deadspin.
In an awkward twist, NBA commissioner Adam Silver is currently in Japan en route to China, where the Los Angeles Lakers are scheduled to play two exhibition games this week against the Nets. On Monday, Silver responded to the (U.S.) backlash against the NBA’s statement in an interview with the Kyodo News:
“I have read some of the media suggesting that we are not supporting Daryl Morey, but in fact we have.”
“I think as a values-based organization that I want to make it clear that Daryl Morey is supported in terms of his ability to exercise his freedom of expression.” …
“I am also supporting Joe Tsai. I realize, as I said again, these are complex issues they don’t lend themselves easily to social media. I can’t ultimately run the NBA based on trying to satisfy everyone on Twitter.”
“For those who choose also to engage, they’ll see that we are dealing with a complex set of issues. And I will just add that the fact that we have apologized to fans in China is not inconsistent with supporting someone’s right to have a point of view.”
Apparently, to Silver, one way to “support” someone’s freedom of expression is to publicly announce that what they’ve just said is “regrettable,” and if you don’t understand that, it’s Twitter’s fault.
“We are a platform in which people can engage,” the commissioner added, “and I would like to believe that for each side who believes they have a point of view here, that this engagement is positive.” Indeed, the figures who run China’s corporate police state probably do feel that they got a “positive” result out of their “engagement” with the NBA on this issue, don’t they?