The NBA/China controversy began in early October 2019, after Daryl Morey, the general manager of the NBA’s Houston Rockets, tweeted about the ongoing pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, China.
For the past few decades, the NBA spent millions of dollars investing in Asian markets – especially China – hoping to grow the sport of basketball. For example, the NBA helped construct basketball courts, gave broadcasting rights for free, and played offseason games in China.
On October 4, 2019, Morey tweeted – and deleted shortly thereafter – a picture with the caption, “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong.” Instantly, the tweet was met with backlash from supporters of the current Chinese government. Morey’s tweet is potentially threatening years of collaboration, and what has otherwise been an extremely prolific venture, between the NBA and China.
The Chinese consulate in Houston, Texas, released a formal statement expressing its “strong dissatisfaction” with Morey’s tweet, stating that “Anybody with a conscience would support the efforts made by the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region to safeguard Hong Kong’s social stability.”
Chinese sponsors also began to cut ties with the Rockets and the NBA. For example, sportswear brand Li-Ning, which sponsors a handful of NBA players, announced it would suspend business ties with the NBA. Chinese state television announced it would no longer air the Rockets’ preseason games, and the media sessions scheduled for the Los Angeles Lakers-Brooklyn Nets exhibition game on October 10, 2019 in Shanghai were canceled.
While many in the United States called on NBA Commissioner Adam Silver to “stand up to China,” Silver’s response was met with harsh criticism. Some claim Silver complied with China and was more concerned about the NBA’s bottom line when he stated that the NBA was “apologetic” over the outcome of Morey’s tweet. Silver also noted, “We are not apologizing for Daryl exercising his freedom of expression.”
Silver appeared to intensify his misstep when he spoke with a Tokyo-based news corporation and said, “There is no doubt, the economic impact is already clear. There have already been fairly dramatic consequences from that tweet, and I have read some of the media suggesting that we are not supporting Daryl Morey, but in fact we have.”
Malcontent with Silver’s response, a bipartisan group of United States legislators sent a letter to Silver denouncing the NBA’s response to the controversy, criticizing it for inadequately dealing with the foreseeable “challenges of doing business in a country run by a repressive single party government.” This group has called upon the NBA to suspend its operations in China.
Silver does not seem interested in discontinuing operations in China. In fact, he attended the Lakers-Nets exhibition game in Shanghai.
On October 9, 2019, a small group of NBA fans, holding a sign with the phrases “Free Hong Kong” and “Google Uyghurs,” had their signs seized by Capital One Arena security, home of the NBA’s Washington Wizards. Needless to say, this controversy appears far from over and looks as if it could continue to develop.