The NBA is attempting to balance competing interests in the wake Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeting in support of the protests in Hong Kong.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver called offense to fans in China by Morey’s tweet “regrettable,” but said the NBA supports “individuals educating themselves and sharing their views on matters important to them.”
Numerous companies in China have already cut ties with the NBA in the wake of Morey’s comments and Silver’s initial response.
Silver added that he believed “in the power of sports to make a difference,” and told reporters that he hoped to meet with officials in Shanghai to put both his and Morey’s remarks in context and “find a mutual respect for each other’s political systems and beliefs.”
The NBA has a reputation as a progressive league, but that may be difficult to hold on to as they try to find a middle ground with their financial interests in China.
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The NBA is attempting to thread a difficult needle right now.
On Friday, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted in support of the ongoing Hong Kong protests, a move that was not appreciated by the NBA’s business partners in China.
Morey apologized and deleted the tweet, but the initial damage was done. State broadcaster China Central Television and the livestreaming platform Tencent Sports both said they would no longer broadcast Rockets games.
Read more: China says it will stop broadcasting NBA games after Commissioner Adam Silver defended Daryl Morey’s freedom to support Hong Kong protests
In the wake of the initial controversy, NBA commissioner Adam Silver has attempted to balance the league’s values of free expression with its financial interests in spreading the game abroad.
In the NBA’s first statement on the matter, Silver tried to split the difference, saying that Morey’s comments causing offense to fans in China was “regrettable,” but clarifying that while they do not represent the feelings of the league or the Rockets, it “supports individuals educating themselves and sharing their views on matters important to them.”
Silver’s initial statement didn’t appear to appease the league’s business partners in China. Multiple brands, ranging from streaming platforms to shoe companies, cut ties with the NBA.
Read more: The NBA has already felt ‘economic impact’ from Daryl Morey’s pro-Hong Kong tweet – Here all the moves that have been made by China
Silver put out a second statement on Tuesday, hoping to clear up the matter.
“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.”
Silver also noted the diversity within the NBA, with 25% of the league’s players were born outside of the United States. Also, the NBA has offices around the world, including 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.”
Silver concluded that the league believes sports “can be a unifying force that focuses on what we have in common as human beings rather than our differences.”
Silver also said he still planned to attend the scheduled preseason game between the Lakers and Nets on Thursday in Shanghai. He also hopes to meet with officials to discuss the matter and “put those remarks from Daryl Morey and my remarks in the appropriate context of a decades-long relationship and see if we can find a mutual respect for each other’s political systems and beliefs.”
The NBA, and Silver’s tenure as league commissioner, has been viewed mostly as a progressive presence in the American sports landscape in recent years. Silver’s first major move as commissioner was the removal of former Clippers owner Donald Sterling. He was banned for life by the league after recordings of racist remarks became public.
Since then, the league has defined itself as a place where athletes and coaches are free to speak their minds on issues relating to race and politics. Recent examples include head coaches Gregg Popovich and Steve Kerr speaking out against gun violence, and LeBron James calling the president a “bum.” This has stood in sharp contrast to the NFL, which has seemingly worked to stifle players’ freedom of expression in favor of, for lack of a better term, “sticking to sports.”
But the NBA’s relationship with China – a market worth billions for the league – makes this controversy especially delicate and challenging to navigate. How Silver and the league attempt to resolve the issue will speak volumes.
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