One tweet, a week of turmoil: NBA steps out of bounds with China and pays the price

The now-deleted tweet was just seven words: “Fight for freedom, Stand with Hong Kong.”

With that, Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets, on Oct. 4 plunged the National Basketball Association into still-unfolding turmoil as it wrestles with two conflicting forces in its business and public relations identity. The NBA is trying to to maintain the lucrative business ties with China while upholding its commitment to civil liberties and freedom of speech.

Morey was referring to the Hong Kong protests, which began in June. Protesters objected to a bill amendment to allow extradition of certain criminal suspects to mainland China, saying that threatened the city’s autonomy and would make its citizens vulnerable to unfair trials.

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FILE - In this April 19, 2011, file photo, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey discusses the direction of the team with the media during a basketball news conference, in Houston, after the decision to part ways with NBA basketball head coach Rick Adelman. Morey tried Sunday, Oct. 6, 2019 to defuse the rapidly growing fallout over his deleted tweet that showed support for Hong Kong anti-government protesters, saying he did not intend to offend any of the team’s Chinese fans or sponsors. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan, File) Pat Sullivan AP

But the NBA has billions of dollars on the line in tapping a country with 1.4 billion people and a basketball audience estimated to be between 500 and 650 million fans.

Although the Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets still played a preseason game Saturday in Shenzhen, 20 miles from Hong Kong, the NBA’s presence in China is still in recovery, with lingering acrimony and a muzzle on NBA players to keep them from talking about the matter. But the NBA’s troubles have brought to light the perils of ties with China – political censorship – and one of the reasons driving Hong Kongers to the streets.

“China will continue to use its soft power to oppress the freedom of speech around the world,” said Ken Chan, core member of the Northern California Hong Kong Club, an organization established in 2011 to promote democracy and political progress in China and Hong Kong. “Companies have to reconsider how they defend their core values.”

Jose Ng, a “Stand with Hong Kong” rally organizer in San Francisco, said the controversy highlights Hong Konger’s daily experiences in the city’s deteriorating freedoms.

“This is the pressure Hong Kongers is facing every single day, not only the reporters, but everyone,” he said. “Companies in the U.S. that enjoy the rights to freedom of speech now have to sell their souls for business interests, so imagine what Hong Kongers are facing right now.”

Ng cited the example of Cathay Pacific, Hong Kong flagship that reportedly fired dozens of employees after outlawing staff members from joining rallies deemed illegal by authorities in late September, according to CNN.

Hong Kong is a former British colony returned to China in 1997 with the promise of “one country, two systems.” This enables the special administrative region to enjoy a high degree of self-autonomy until 2047. It operates its own independent judiciary system.

Ng said the controversy sheds light for the U.S. on the Hong Kong’s struggle.

The NBA controversy is just the tip of an iceberg, however, Chan said. He cited the example of how Apple removed the HKMAP.LIVE app, used by protesters to track police activity, a day after a Chinese state-run newspaper called the app “toxic.” Marriott, the Gap and other businesses have had to apologize after run-ins with China.

The NBA didn’t apologize, but Tilman Fertitta, owner of the Rockets, said Morey didn’t speak for the team, which has a long-standing history with China, dating back to drafting Yao Ming No. 1 in the 2002 draft. Rockets star James Harden, though, did apologize. “We apologize,” Mr. Harden said. “We love China.”

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NBA Commissioner Adam Silver walks away from the podium after speaking at a news conference before an NBA preseason basketball game between the Houston Rockets and the Toronto Raptors Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019, in Saitama, near Tokyo. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong) Jae C. Hong AP

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver released a statement saying he “won’t regulate what players, employees or team owners say or will not say on different issues.” But over the past week, the NBA, seen as a progressive sports entity in encouraging its players and personnel to speak up, has been forced to reckon with the fallout and tone it down.

The tweet fallout

The Sacramento Kings, in response to inquiries about the team’s response to the controversy, emphasized the importance of freedom of speech and how the team would view a potentially volatile comment about China.

“We have a deep respect for our nation’s unwavering commitment to free speech and support all Americans’ right to freely express themselves,” the team said in an email.

The Kings, who played two games in India this month, have no plans to play in China in the 2020 season. The team played a preseason game in China in 2014, and played against the China team in the Las Vegas summer league game in July. The conflict with the country, though, could extend to the Kings, with lost money possibly translating to a reduction in the salary cap. That, as The Bee reported, could affect guard Buddy Hield’s contract status.

The Kings said they are not going to speculate on the salary cap issue, a matter that is conjecture at this point.

Andy Miller, a Kings co-owner, acknowledged on Tuesday in a CNBC interview that the NBA-China debate is a complicated business and political issue. He said he is all for freedom of speech.

“NBA has a long-standing relationship with China, China loves basketball, they love the NBA, so full faith in Adam (Silver) who had done an amazing job in his tenure as commissioner,” Miller said.

NBA Chief Communications Officer Mike Bass released a statement shortly after Morey’s tweet, saying that the league supports individuals sharing their views, but said the league recognized how Morey’s views have “deeply offended” many in China, which is “regrettable.”

The Chinese translation of the same statement NBA posted on Weibo used different wording, however. It read that the NBA is “extremely disappointed in Morey’s inappropriate statement,” which no doubt has “severely hurt the feelings of Chinese fans.”

The damage had been done. The NBA had announced a five-year partnership expansion with Chinese media giant Tencent in July to stream games, with estimates that the deal was worth $1.5 billion. After the dispute, Tencent and China’s state-run TV channel CCTV suspended broadcast of NBA’s preseason games in China, according to a CNBC report.

The NBA has also been criticized for kowtowing to Chinese pressure. Twitter users lambasted NBA, saying shame on the association for “kneeling” to the regime while Hong Kongers “are risking their lives.” Trump mocked Golden State Warriors Coach Steve Kerr for refusing to comment on the issue. Kerr responded prior to a preseason game that he preferred not to become a “sound bite.”

Fans near and far

David Carter, associate professor at the USC Marshall School of Business and an expert in sports business, said the stakeholders in the matter have a hard time with one response. But fans’ view of the NBA probably doesn’t change.

Daniel Rascher, director of the sport management program at the University of San Francisco, echoed that. The NBA resonates deeply with fans, Rascher said. The games are accessible, players come from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds, and the games are fun, played around the world.

“A way to promote U.S. values is to do business in those countries,” he said. “That is how U.S. ideas spread there. At the same time, businesses have to fit in with local customs. So we have to balance both.”

What has happened is that China’s censorship of companies has became more well known because of how much the NBA means to the U.S. fans.

Kings fan Louis Dimassa, 37, has been following the controversy. He said we should understand that the U.S. and China are two different cultures. Not many in the U.S. know the complexities that make up the relationship between Hong Kong and China, as compared to other countries.

“So I’d be surprised if any player comes out with any information or viewpoints on whether Daryl Morey’s tweet was right or wrong,” he said.

Brian Nehring, 46, an NBA fan here, said freedom of speech takes a certain measure of responsibility.

“Sometimes we don’t take responsibility for the words that we say, and it affects the world,” Nehring said. “We are the most powerful country in the world and I think we should stand up, have a stronger responsibility back behind how we act and what we say.”

Some fans did wear “Free Hong Kong” T-shirts before an NBA preseason game. Two fans, showing support to Hong Kong with signs and chants, were escorted from the arena in Philadelphia a day earlier, following complaints from other fans, for being disruptive and after being warned, according to the team.

Sun Lared, an NBA fan from L.A., created a gofundme page to raise $20,000 to print and distribute “Stand with Hong Kong” T-shirts for a collective demonstration against censorship with fans wearing the T-shirts on opening night at the Staples Center in L.A. on Oct. 22.

The campaign hit its funding goal in just over 24 hours. Lared wrote on the gofundme page that extra funds will be donated to the Civil Human Rights Front, an NGO advocating for democratic development in Hong Kong.

David Chan, 25, an NBA fan for 13 years from Hong Kong, said he donated $50 to the T-shirt campaign because he did not feel many U.S. citizens know about the issue. Despite his feelings about it, Chan said the NBA remains a source of joy.

Chan felt positive about the controversy, noting that many influential people, such as Blizzard esports player Blitzchung, author of the basketball manga Slam Dunk Takehiko Inoue, and some Japanese singers have voiced their support for Hong Kong after the NBA-China controversy.

“Hong Kong belongs to us, and this is our fight,” Chan said. “We need to win Hong Kong back. But it is also important for people to at least sympathize with us, learn about the consequences and keep in mind George Orwell’s ‘1984.’”

Ken Chan said that the heated debate could have an effect on the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019, as Congress reconvenes next week.

“We are talking about the freedom of speech being challenged within the United States,” Ng said. “If companies do not carry out the core values of their country, do they really uphold the values of human rights and democracy?”

This story was changed Oct. 16 to clarify that the Philadelphia fans removed from the arena had drawn complaints from other spectators and had been warned.

Theodora Yu covers Asian American issues for The Sacramento Bee. She is a Hong Kong native and a Columbia Journalism School alumna with an interest in immigration and climate change issues.