Free speech isn’t always free. The NBA is finding this out the hard way, having to scramble after the GM for the Houston Rockets, Daryl Morey, made some poorly-timed comments regarding China and its ongoing battle with pro-democracy supporters in Hong Kong. Only days before the league was to start showing off its skills in preseason games hosted by China, the country’s major broadcaster has canceled its plans to air the games. However, as the old saying goes, the show must go on.
Morey said in a now-deleted Twitter post, “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.” The comment was in response to an ongoing battle in Hong Kong that has pitted the government against those wanting a free society and less control from mainland China. Morey later tried to defend his opinion in a public statement, asserting, “I did not intend my tweet to cause any offense to Rockets fans and friends of mine in China. I was merely voicing one thought, based on one interpretation, of one complicated event. I have had a lot of opportunity since that tweet to hear and consider other perspectives.”
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver was supportive of Morey’s right to free speech, which is at the heart of the Hong Kong protests. However, he probably wished that the comments had been kept tucked away somewhere, especially as the league is only days away from seeing preseason games in China.
“Daryl Morey, as general manager of the Houston Rockets, enjoys that right as one of our employees.,” Silver said. “What I also tried to suggest is that I understand there are consequences from his freedom of speech and we will have to live with those consequences.”
China doesn’t see things the same way. As the LA Lakers and the Brooklyn Nets are set to play hoops on a Chinese court later this week, the country’s state broadcaster, CCTV, has yanked the games from its programming lineup. It has also decided to re-evaluate its relationship with the league, which could ultimately cost the NBA a ton of money.
The CCTV said in a statement that shows how little the country understands the meaning of free speech, “We’re strongly dissatisfied and oppose Adam Silver’s claim to support Morey’s right to freedom of expression. We believe that any remarks that challenge national sovereignty and social stability are not within the scope of freedom of speech.”
Silver plans on allowing the games to proceed in China and is reportedly set to travel to the country tomorrow. There’s a good chance that there is going to be a lot of public protest and the NBA should be prepared to provide a lot of security for its players and staff. The league was already forced to cancel one event, a ceremonial NBA Cares exhibition for a Shanghai education center, but other events are reportedly still on track. The Nets are already on the ground and the Lakers arrive today.
The basketball contests have already lost at least one sponsor because of Morey’s seven words. A Chinese smartphone manufacturer, Vivo, had sponsored the Lakers-Nets games, but said that it is suspending its sponsorship, as well as that of the NBA as an entity. Other companies have also reportedly pulled out of similar sponsorship deals.
Calls for the NBA to cancel the China visit, even from US lawmakers, have fallen on deaf ears. Silver explains as he’s trying to boost morale, “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.”