The National Basketball Association (NBA) found itself embroiled in an international free speech controversy after the general manager of the Houston Rockets issued a tweet in support of the protesters in Hong Kong on the eve of the league’s scheduled exhibition games in China which didn’t go over too well with the Chinese government.
After the initial backlash, Morey deleted the tweet, but not before it was captured by other Twitter users.
— Curtis Houck (@CurtisHouck) October 7, 2019
The NBA reacted quickly to Morey’s tweet.
“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,” the NBA said in a statement. “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.”
Then NBA commissioner Adam Silver held a press conference where he appeared to contradict the league’s statement on the tweet.
“We are not apologizing for Daryl exercising his freedom of expression,” Silver said. “I regret, again, having communicated directly with many friends in China, that so many people are upset, including millions and millions of our fans. At the end of the day, we come with basketball as an opportunity to sell dreams, sell hopes, to increasingly focus on physical fitness, mental health. To the extent that we are causing disruption in people’s lives and that we are causing disharmony, that’s something I regret.”
Silver was hoping that his comments would quell the controversy so that the NBA could continue on building on its relationship with China which is worth billions to the league. The broadcast contract alone is worth $1.5 billion with gate receipts and merchandise sales of NBA gear potentially worth several billion more as the league expands its outreach in China.
That hope blew up though when during a press conference in Japan with Houston Rockets stars James Harden and Russell Westbrook when CNN reporter Cynthia Mcfarlane had the audacity to ask them about freedom of expression given recent events.
“The NBA has always been a league that prides itself on its players and coaches being able to speak out openly about political and social affairs. I just wonder after the events of this week, and the fallout we’ve seen, whether or not you both would feel differently about speaking out that way in the future?
That prompted an NBA staffer to tell her “basketball questions only.”
“It’s a legitimate question”,” Mcfarlane shot back while a man moved to take her microphone away, adding “This is an event that happened this week.”
“I understand that. It’s a question that’s already been answered,” replied the staffer.
That confrontation which received plenty of media coverage prompted the NBA, which had seemingly expressed the rights of its employees to express their opinions to quash free speech by canceling all press conferences during their time in China.
The Chinese government is struggling to deal with the protesters in Hong Kong after it tried to impose an extradition law sparking fears that Beijing would systematically eliminate the freedoms Hong Kong was promised when it was returned to Chinese control by Great Britain in 1997 and they certainly didn’t want anyone from the NBA weighing in on their response to the protests.