Kate McCabe / Gavel Media

NBA Caught up in Free Expression Controversy With China

The NBA has long championed itself as a progressive league that generally allows its players to speak out about American social issues. However, tackling a recent international issue has left general managers, players, and even the league commissioner facing controversy. A single tweet with a single photo containing just seven words has put the NBA at odds with the entire country of China. 

Photo of deleted tweet courtesy of Yahoo Sports

On Oct. 4, a tweet from the Twitter account @dmorey, belonging to Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey, contained a photo with the words “Fight for Freedom, Stand with Hong Kong.” It was quickly deleted, but not before it caused intense backlash and an actual international incident.

Hong Kong has been engaged in pro-democracy protests against the Chinese government for months now. Many have turned violent, and the extreme violence has only escalated, coming to a head recently when an 18-year-old was shot at close range by the police.

Since these protests are in support of democracy and freedom—two very important American ideals—it seems strange that the only person affiliated with the NBA to speak out in support of the protesters in Hong Kong would jeopardize his job security in doing so and be forced to apologize.

Many people associated with the NBA outside of Morey have apologized for this tweet. The NBA went into PR mode, with Morey sending out a series of new and approved tweets that expressed support for Chinese NBA fans. A spokesperson for the NBA called the tweet“regrettable,” and even James Harden tossed in an apology of his own.

Then, LeBron James got involved. When asked about the Morey controversy, James said that Morey was “misinformed” and “not educated” about the situation in Hong Kong. 

These were unexpected words to hear coming from one of the most famously outspoken advocates for social justice. James has a long history of supporting social movements, such as the Black Lives Matter movement, and authored an extremely viral tweet calling the president a “bum.” 

It seemed as though nobody expected such a definitive swipe at Morey from James, as it made James look like a puppet of the league trying to protect their (and his) assets.

James later tried to backtrack a bit on his comments, saying Morey wasn’t educated on the ramifications of his tweet, not the actual content of the situation. This came after James received a ton of criticism for going against his usual social justice-oriented principles.

China seems to be where the league is drawing the line for progressivism. In the past, people have been able to speak on international subjects with nothing but praise in return from the league. For example, San Antonio Spurs Head Coach Gregg Popovich attacked the Trump administration’s Muslim ban in 2017. 

This begs the question: Why was everyone silent on the clear human rights violations and violence in Hong Kong until Morey?

Well, it all comes down to the money from the huge market for the NBA in China. The Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Lakers played a pair of games there this pre-season, and the Houston Rockets have a strong Chinese fanbase after drafting Chinese basketball player Yao Ming in 2002.

Like most businesses probably would, the NBA chose revenue over values.

The NBA is so concerned with their Chinese viewership and jersey sales that they went into immediate crisis management mode after Morey’s tweet. League commissioner Adam Silver said the financial losses are “substantial” with China currently refusing to air NBA games. The Chinese Basketball Association, of which Yao Ming is president, cut ties with the Rockets, adding to the hefty financial losses.

Adam Silver, however, has stated that Morey will not be punished for exercising his right to freedom of speech, considering its strong place in American values. In the past, Silver has defended the likes of both Daryl Morey and Lebron James while navigating the unwanted role of diplomat that he has now been forced into.

Silver also tried to backtrack on the NBA statement that appeared to refer to Morey’s tweet as “regrettable.” At the Time 100 Summit, he said the use of the word referred to the reaction from China and its people, rather than Morey’s tweet.

In yet another unexpected twist, China called for Silver to fire Morey. However, Silver does not have the power to do that—only the Rockets organization can. Silver refused, seeing as it would have been disastrous in regards to the league’s American and western fanbase. Angry with this response and perceived lack of support, China stated Silver would face “retribution.” 

Yes, that’s right; in yet another piece of evidence that we are living in a simulation, the Chinese government leveled a threat against the NBA commissioner. If China completely cuts business ties with the NBA, they will likely encourage others to do so, culminating in a significant loss of money that the NBA would desperately like to avoid.

Not wanting to upset either market, the NBA is attempting to walk a fine line between American and Chinese cultures.

One of the main takeaways from this crazy saga is that the NBA is apparently willing to further social progressivism only when it doesn’t interfere with their finances. At its core, the NBA is a business and they are looking to turn a profit.

This is definitely a gray area for the league, which has never found itself in the middle of such a volatile international situation. However, a simple tweet in support of freedom should have been handled better by a league that historically has sold their players’ and coaches’ forward-thinking political views.

Swiftie, first and foremost.