The NBA is under fire from all sides after apologizing to China for a tweet from Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey that showed solidarity with pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.
Morey on Friday tweeted, “Fight for freedom. Stand with Hong Kong,” bringing a sharp rebuke from China, where several businesses and TV networks cut ties with the Rockets and blocked their games from Chinese viewers.
The NBA moved to contain the fallout, faced with the prospect of a serious setback to its work in China’s lucrative market. Morey deleted the tweet and expressed his regrets. The NBA also issued a statement Sunday apologizing for the tweet, and both Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta and All-Star power forward James Harden distanced themselves from Morey.
Commissioner Adam Silver’s handling of the matter threatens to damage the reputation of the NBA, which has been seen as one of the more progressive sports leagues in the U.S.
As the league scrambled to save face in China, lawmakers at home from both parties ripped the NBA, accusing it of putting profit over principle.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who is often spotted at Rockets games, tweeted Sunday that he was “proud” to see Morey stand up for Hong Kong and accused the NBA of “shamefully retreating” in “pursuit of big $$.”
Across the aisle, two 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) and former Housing Secretary Julián Castro (D), also blasted the league.
O’Rourke, who lost a Senate challenge to Cruz, tweeted that “the only thing the NBA should be apologizing for is their blatant prioritization of profits over human rights. What an embarrassment.” And Castro said the U.S. should “not allow American citizens to be bullied by an authoritarian government.”
For the NBA, the controversy has high financial stakes. The league has spent decades expanding its footprint in China. In July, the league and Chinese telecom giant Tencent struck a five-year, $1.5 billion deal to create an exclusive broadcasting partnership as the country’s interest in the NBA soars.
The Rockets played a trailblazing role in those efforts after drafting Chinese basketball star Yao Ming with the first pick in the league’s 2002 draft. Yao’s nine-year career with the Rockets earned him a place in the NBA Hall of Fame while endearing the Rockets to China’s exploding fan base.
But China’s lucrative market is also a challenge for U.S. corporations that take pains to avoid any political controversies over issues such as Hong Kong, Taiwan and Tibet that could damage their bottom lines.
The negative reaction in China to Morey’s tweet was quick. The Chinese Basketball Association, now chaired by Yao, said it would suspend “exchanges and cooperation” with the Rockets, who are now blacklisted by China’s sports and media entities.
The NBA issued a statement in English on Sunday, saying it was “regrettable” that Morey’s tweet “deeply offended” legions of Chinese fans.
Critics saw the statement as an effort to distance the league and team from Morey, a successful and innovate general manager.
Harden, one of the Rockets’ star players, also offered an apology.
“We apologize. You know, we love China. We love playing there,” Harden said at a press conference before a game in Kyoto, according to ESPN.
The league further stoked controversy with a Mandarin-language translation of its statement that condemned Morey’s tweet as “inappropriate” and used other stronger terms. In the Chinese statement, the NBA apologized for the “hurt feelings” caused by Morey’s tweet, borrowing a phrase commonly used by the Chinese government to rebuke challenges to Beijing’s edicts, according to The Associated Press.
The NBA is not the first major U.S. business to yield to Chinese pressure, but the apology for Morey was seen a surprising break for a league that has long supported politically outspoken players and coaches.
Silver, who took over the NBA in 2014, publicly backed players who sported Black Lives Matter shirts in pregame warmups, formed partnerships with the movement and has spoken out on other domestic political issues.
The NBA moved its 2017 All-Star Game from Charlotte, N.C., to New Orleans after North Carolina enacted a controversial law banning transgender individuals from using bathrooms other than those for their assigned biological sex.
“I thought the @NBA was proud to be the ‘wokest professional sports league’?” tweeted Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), referring to a New York Times editor’s description of the league that was embraced by Silver. “I guess that only applies to speaking out on American politics & social issues.”
Silver sought to push back on the narrative that the league had failed to support Morey in an interview with Kyodo News on Monday.
“There is no doubt, the economic impact is already clear,” Silver said, acknowledging the league’s tough position. But he insisted that Morey was being “supported in terms of his ability to exercise his freedom of expression.”
“I accept that it is also Chinese governments’ and Chinese businesses’ right to react to those words and, at least from my long-time experience in the NBA, it will take some time to heal some of these issues,” he added.
But those remarks are unlikely to stem the firestorm of criticism in Washington, where lawmakers are putting their own pressure on the NBA.
Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), said Monday that he requested a meeting with Silver to discuss “the importance of supporting the brave individuals fighting to free themselves from the grip of Communist China.”
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) also asked Silver to cancel two exhibition games in China scheduled for Oct. 10 and 12 “pending a peaceful resolution to the crisis in Hong Kong.”
How the league addresses that pressure in the days to come could be crucial for its China plans and its reputation at home. The Wall Street Journal reported that Silver had another press conference scheduled for Tuesday morning. The controversy also threatens to expand as other team executives and players are asked to weigh in.
And it is unclear if the league’s actions will be enough for China or the U.S. where lawmakers are pushing the NBA to walk back its apology.
Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) wrote in a Monday letter to Silver that the league’s “shameful” response would “mark a permanent stain” on the NBA.
“The NBA and its owners must ask yourselves if your corporate profits are of greater importance than the ideals of liberty that comprise the bedrock of America,” wrote Pascrell.
“At some point soon your league and its leaders may have to pick one or the other, but you can’t have both.”