With just one tweet, Daryl Morey set off a geopolitical firestorm.
The Rockets general manager found himself at the center of controversy this past weekend after he sent out a seemingly straightforward message on social media. But Morey’s six-word post pushed the NBA into a difficult dilemma with China, and there doesn’t appear to be a simple resolution in sight.
Here’s how the situation started, the intense reactions that followed and what could come next.
What did Daryl Morey tweet?
In a since-deleted tweet on Oct. 4, Morey shared an image with this slogan: “Fight for Freedom, Stand with Hong Kong.”
Why did the tweet spark so much controversy?
Morey inadvertently inserted the NBA into the middle of a heated debate over civil rights and extradition laws.
A piece of legislation introduced over the summer in Hong Kong proposed the ability to extradite criminal suspects back to China, dropping them into a Chinese justice system in which most criminal trials end in a conviction. There were immediate concerns about protecting the civil rights of citizens and preventing them from being targeted unfairly.
The nature of the bill inspired numerous anti-government protests, and some of the demonstrations turned violent. Chief Executive of Hong Kong Carrie Lam later declared the bill “dead” but only withdrew it after months of protestors demanding she formally do so.
How did the Rockets and China react?
Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta quickly distanced the organization from Morey’s comments, and Morey later walked back his statement. All-Star guard James Harden also publicly apologized to China in the aftermath of Morey’s tweet.
The Ringer’s John Gonzalez reported that Morey’s job may be in jeopardy, but The Athletic’s Sam Amick shot down the idea that Morey could be fired, citing two sources close to Rockets ownership. When asked about the reports, Fertitta called Morey the “best general manager in the league” and said “everything is fine with me and Daryl.”
In the eyes of China’s leadership, Morey represented a foreign power encouraging these demonstrations. The Chinese consulate in Houston denounced Morey’s tweet, saying it was “deeply shocked” by his “erroneous comments.” The Chinese Basketball Association ceased all cooperation with the Rockets, and CCTV, the state-run television station, has suspended broadcasts of preseason games.
China’s Education Bureau also canceled a scheduled NBA Cares event in Shanghai. The NBA and the Nets were set to dedicate a Learn and Play Center at a local school.
Nets owner Joseph Tsai, co-founder of the Chinese company Alibaba, offered his own personal response with a lengthy Facebook post. Tsai said he would accept Morey’s apology but added “the hurt that this incident has caused will take a long time to repair.”
And what about the NBA?
The NBA issued an initial statement that was roundly criticized by U.S. politicians on both sides of the aisle for choosing financial interests over human rights.
Here is that statement in full:
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. 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.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver then attempted to clarify the league’s stance with a follow-up statement in which he claimed the NBA is about “far more than growing our business.”
“It is inevitable that people around the world — including from American and China — will have different viewpoints over different issues,” Silver said. “It is not the role of the NBA to adjudicate those differences.
“However, the NBA 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.”
Why does the relationship with China matter?
China has been a major market for the NBA ever since the Rockets selected Chinese center Yao Ming with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2002 draft. Ming is one of the most important figures in the history of the sport in terms of the globalization of the NBA. His mere presence allowed the Rockets to become China’s team. By 2006, Houston forward Tracy McGrady had the top-selling jersey in China, even above Yao.
Nearly a decade removed from Yao’s retirement, the Rockets are considered the second-most popular team in China, according to a recent study, behind only the Warriors. Golden State features two-time MVP Stephen Curry and five-time All-Star Klay Thompson, who has an exclusive shoe deal with Chinese company Anta.
The doors Yao opened into the Chinese market have allowed the league to build a multibillion-dollar relationship. The NBA has a deal in place with Tencent, a streaming platform which has temporarily suspended broadcasts, reportedly worth $1.5 billion, and NBA China is worth more than $4 billion, according to Forbes.
So far, two Chinese companies — sportswear brand Li-Ning and Shanghai Pudong Development Bank — have suspended their sponsorship agreements with the Rockets, according to Reuters.
What happens next between the NBA and China?
The Lakers and Nets are still scheduled to play Thursday night at the Mercedes-Benz Arena in Shanghai, though the preseason game likely won’t be seen on TV or streaming platforms.
Yao, the man largely responsible for this growth and the current chairman of the Chinese Basketball Association, is supposed to meet with Silver in Shanghai. It might not be an easy conversation.
Silver’s discussion with Yao could go a long way in determining whether this partnership can be fixed — or if the divide will only grow larger.
“I’m sympathetic to our interests here and our partners that are upset,” Silver said. “I don’t think it’s inconsistent on one hand to be sympathetic to them and at the same time stand by our principles.”
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