It started innocently enough, Rockets general manager Daryl Morey sending out a simple tweet on Friday evening. It has unraveled, however, into an international incident that has caused outrage on two continents and left the NBA—ever-conscious of its image as an agent for social justice—groveling for forgiveness from angry Chinese fans and officials.
Morey tweeted an image alongside the all-caps words, “FIGHT FOR FREEDOM STAND WITH HONG KONG.” The tweet expressed support for young demonstrators in Hong Kong, who have been protesting increased Chinese influence over Hong Kong’s politics and government.
That would appear to be a non-controversial position for the NBA, which has been supportive of players speaking out on social justice and police violence as well as on gay rights. The league moved its All-Star game out of Charlotte in 2016 after North Carolina passed its so-called, “bathroom bill.”
Chinese Reaction to Morey was Strong and Swift
But China takes a hard line against outside influence on its territory—the island of Hong Kong was handed over to the Chinese in 1997, after it had been a British colony—and Morey’s tweet drew swift reaction on the Chinese mainland. That put the NBA in a bind.
China is a major revenue source for the NBA, particularly the Rockets, Yao Ming’s team for nine seasons. The Shanghai Sharks played a preseason game against the Rockets eight days ago. The Chinese company Tencent Holdings paid billions of dollars to extend its streaming rights deal with the league just months ago, but after Morey’s tweet, the Rockets were banned from the streaming service.
The Chinese Basketball Association, headed by Yao himself, cut ties with the Rockets after the tweet. Other Chinese companies with ties to the Rockets followed suit.
A Slew of Apologies From the NBA
The NBA reacted. Morey deleted the tweet shortly after it was sent and apologized. Five hours later, Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta sent out a tweet disavowing Morey’s sentiment and saying Morey, “does NOT speak for the organization.”
The league office put out a statement saying, “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.”
On Monday, Rockets star James Harden, with the team for exhibition games in Tokyo, also apologized. “You know, we love China, we love playing there,” Harden said. “For both of us individually, we go there once or twice a year. They show us the most important love. We appreciate them as a fan base. We love everything there about them and we appreciate the support that they give us individually and as an organization.”
There was also a statement from Nets owner Joe Tsai, the league’s first Chinese owner and a key figure in trying to defuse the controversy.
“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,” Tsai wrote on Facebook.
“The one thing that is terribly misunderstood, and often ignored, by the western press and those critical of China is 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. This issue is non-negotiable.”
Backlash From China, Now Backlash in the U.S.
The NBA is big in China—no other American sport is close—and the league is desperate not to lose its hold on the market. Last year, nearly 500 million Chinese fans watched NBA games. But that desperation, from the league, from owners and now from a star player, is drawing its own backlash in the U.S.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz put out a message on Twitter, slamming the NBA for chasing Chinese money.
His 2018 opponent for the Senate seat, presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke, also added his criticism of the league, as did fellow candidate and Texas congressman Julian Castro.
NBA media members did not take kindly to the league’s stance, including Hall of Fame writer Jack McCallum.
Political scientist and author Ian Bremmer was not kind to the NBA, either.