As tensions escalated between the NBA and China earlier this week around Rockets’ GM Daryl Morey’s Tweet supporting protestors in Hong Kong, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver released a statement trying to calm the waters and ease concerns in China.
In China, the statement was translated poorly on the NBA’s Chinese social media to say the league was “extremely disappointed” by Morey’s “inappropriate” Tweet, which “severely hurt the feelings of Chinese fans.” The NBA had to say that was not what was said or meant.
Domestically the statement was rightfully seen by many as the NBA backing the almighty dollar over freedom of expression, which led Senators and presidential candidates — across party lines — to chastise the league. Even the creators of South Park got in on the act. The NBA had built a reputation for encouraging players and others to speak out on social issues, but the second that expression hurt the bottom line in a fast-growing market the league changed that tune and sounded like every other business.
All of that — and the fact the Lakers and Nets have two exhibition games in China starting Thursday — forced Silver to release this new statement on Tuesday morning, one more favorable to Morey and expression.
“I recognize our initial statement left people angered, confused or unclear on who we are or what the NBA stands for. Let me be more clear.
“Over the last three decades, the NBA has developed a great affinity for the people of China. We have seen how basketball can be an important form of people-to-people exchange that deepens ties between the United States and China.
“At the same time, we recognize that our two countries have different political systems and beliefs. And like many global brands, we bring our business to places with different political systems around the world.
“But for those who question our motivation, this is about far more than growing our business.
“Values of equality, respect and freedom of expression have long defined the NBA – and will continue to do so. As an American-based basketball league operating globally, among our greatest contributions are these values of the game.
“In fact, one of the enduring strengths of the NBA is our diversity – of views, backgrounds, ethnicities, genders and religions. Twenty-five percent of NBA players were born outside of the United States and our colleagues work in league offices around the world, including in Beijing, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Taipei.
“With that diversity comes the belief that whatever our differences, we respect and value each other; and, what we have in common, including a belief in the power of sports to make a difference, remains our bedrock principle.
“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 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.
“Basketball runs deep in the hearts and minds of our two peoples. At a time when divides between nations grow deeper and wider, we believe sports can be a unifying force that focuses on what we have in common as human beings rather than our differences.”
This statement alone will not be the end of this issue, Chinese state media reacted to his statement saying it would not broadcast NBA preseason games this week. Silver will be in China with the Lakers and Nets, and meeting with officials, which may help.
There is a cultural and governmental divide between the USA and China over freedom of expression by citizens — in the United States it is a constitutional right. We can criticize the government, or challenge the views and policies of the President, and it is not treason or any other crime. We can freely criticize other governments and leaders as well.
That certainly is not the case all over the world. In China, the Hong Kong protests are seen as a third rail topic. Morey’s Tweet — where he used the slogan “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong” — has led to the Chinese Basketball League stopping cooperation with the Rockets, the company with NBA broadcast rights in China saying it will not show Rockets games, and G-League Games in China having been canceled. Even plans for the Nets to take part in opening a new NBA Cares Learn and Play Center in Shanghai was shut down by the Chinese government.
Part of China’s initial reaction to Morey’s Tweet was undoubtedly to try to discourage other NBA players with much bigger followings — players active on social media on political and social issues, such as LeBron James — from making similar statements backing the protestors.
It all speaks to the sensitivity of the Chinese government over the perception of their treatment of the protestors in Hong Kong. As Nets owner and Chinese national Joe Tsai said in his statement, in China the protestors are portrayed as separatists and that this is an issue of national sovereignty. In the United States, most see the demonstrators as people trying to protect their freedoms — the Sino-British Joint Declaration that in 1997 handed over control of Hong Kong to China from Britain said that Hong Kong’s capitalist system and way of life would remain unchanged and untouched by China for 50 years. The protestors say China is already violating that agreement.
It’s not a simple issue the NBA has found itself in the middle of, and Silver and the league has found it hard to thread that needle.