The NBA has been rather progressive when it comes to allowing players, coaches and general managers to practice free speech on social media and elsewhere. That has come in a variety of forms from Golden State coach Steve Kerr taking shots at President Donald Trump and Lebron James campaigning for Hillary Clinton to Enes Kanter's aggressive criticism of his home country's (Turkey) president or even how Kyrie Irving believes the earth is flat.
After Rockets GM Daryl Morey tweeted an image, which has since been deleted, supporting ongoing democratic protests in Hong Kong, it was met with a collective shrug by people who follow basketball in America.
China, however, was pissed. And still is.
After the tweet, the Chinese government said the Chinese people were deeply offended and ramifications for the league — and the Rockets — came quickly. The Chinese Basketball Association, run by former Rocket Yao Ming, disavowed itself from the Rockets and canceled exhibition games with G League teams. Chinese companies began abandoning the Rockets and TV networks said they would not show Rockets games in China. On Tuesday, that was extended to exhibition games between the Lakers and Nets in China this week.
They even went so far as to paint over Rockets logos in a practice center in Shanghai.
All over a tweet.
Yao's tenure as a Rocket made the team one of the most popular franchises in China and it seems crazy a single tweet could undermine that until you realize that the Chinese government, a brutal communist regime that routinely cracks down on dissidents, considers Hong Kong protestors to be separatists.
They have thrown fits over advertising that used quotes from the Dalai Lama, who has been forced to live in exile for decades, so it should come as no surprise that they view the GM of an NBA team tweeting about Hong Kong to be a problem.
And because China, mainland China in particular, is very, very sensitive about unification of places like Taiwan and Hong Kong, any move to threaten their sovereignty is taken extremely seriously.
Now, the dominoes are falling...quickly. Billions of dollars are at stake for the NBA in the form of merchandise, television contracts and sponsorship deals.
At first, the Association apologized, had Morey do the same and seemed to capitulate to China. Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta said that Morey doesn't speak for the team and the Rockets aren't a political organization, but he also said he supported Morey. "I have the best general manager in the league," he told ESPN. With rumors swirling that Morey might be asked to step down, the Rockets vehemently denied them and appeared fully in support of their GM.
They weren't alone. Politicians as diverse as Beto O'Rourke, Elizabeth Warren and Ted Cruz voiced their support for Morey, while simultaneously denouncing the NBA.
Early this week, Commissioner Adam Silver, in Tokyo for the Rockets preseason games with the Raptors, defended the league's policy and Morey without supporting his words or exactly apologizing either. "“It is inevitable that people around the world — including from America and China — will have different viewpoints over different issues. It is not the role of the N.B.A. to adjudicate those differences," Silver said in a statement. “However, the N.B.A. will not put itself in a position of regulating what players, employees and team owners say or will not say on these issues. We simply could not operate that way.”
Silver is set to meet with Yao Ming, the former Rocket and head of the Chinese Basketball Association, who Silver described as "hot" over Morey's tweet. Then there was the statement from CCTV, the Chinese broadcaster: “We voice our strong dissatisfaction and opposition to Adam Silver offering as an excuse the right to freedom of expression. We believe that no comments challenging national sovereignty and social stability fall within the scope of freedom of expression.”
To quote Cleo McDowell in Coming to America, "This is America, Jack."
Setting aside what was a rather muddled handling of by the NBA in its initial response, it is clear that China demands that American companies play by their rules including violating perhaps the most sacred amendment to the U.S. Constitution. There is a reason it's the very first amendment, after all.
And basketball is an American sport. We cultivated an interest there, which has led to some fascinating results, but freedom of speech is a fundamental, inalienable right in this country and it should never be set aside for money.
Who is China to demand we give up our personal freedoms for their money? Look, if Morey were way out of line about Hong Kong (he wasn't), then maybe it might be OK to ask him to apologize and distance yourself. But, this is a league (and a country) that allows Spurs coach Greg Popovich to call the President of the United States a "soulless coward." They don't get to tell Daryl Morey he needs to tone down his rhetoric toward a country accused of locking up over 1 million Muslims in detention camps, nor should they.
We're talking about a country that has a list of human rights abuses as long as the Great Wall and they are lecturing us on civility, free speech and what is or isn't offensive? On Twitter? Have they bothered to check our President's Twitter feed lately or at all?
Listen, China, you don't get to tell us or our citizens what they can and cannot say. Not for a million or a billion or a trillion dollars. That isn't how this works. Instead of you reconsidering your relationship with the NBA, perhaps it is time they reconsider their relationship with a totalitarian government who monitors the periods of women and performs forced abortions on citizens who dare to have more children than the state allows.
As far as we're concerned, you can keep your money and we'll take our ball and go home.
Keep the Houston Press Free... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Houston with no paywalls.