By Simon Fischer
Sports and politics have always maintained a close relationship. For example, issues of race and freedom of speech entered the world of the NFL in 2016. Foreign policy, however, has mostly stayed separate from sports in any controversial manner. This context has made the recent debacle involving China and the NBA even more fascinating. What started as a simple tweet from a league executive has spiraled into a legitimate problem for the United States-China relationship, as well as the NBA’s own carefully cultivated relationship with China.
The problems began when Daryl Morey, the Houston Rockets General Manager, tweeted out a picture of the Hong Kong protests with the caption “Freedom for Hong Kong” on October 3 (the tweet has since been deleted). Reactions were swift. Rockets owner, Tilman Fertitta, quickly put out a statement of his own on Twitter condemning Morey and calling the Rockets an apolitical organization, but this did not stop the flood of forthcoming opposition to the organization. The Chinese Basketball Association and telecom company Tencent, which formerly streamed NBA games in China, both cut ties with the team.
The league finally put out its own statement on October 6, arguing that Morey does not speak for the NBA and while they regretted offending any Chinese fans, the league supported Morey’s right to free speech. This apology did not satisfy Chinese businesses, though, and the public response grew into a league-wide backlash that entangled preseason games set to be played a week later in Shanghai and Shenzhen.
China subsequently suspended all preseason broadcasts, all sponsors pulled out of having their logos on the court for the games, and there was no media availability for any players after the games. The response by the NBA in the United States has been dramatic as well, as there have been multiple instances of censorship noted on social media regarding free speech on the issue. Fans were removed from arenas because they were displaying pro-Hong Kong signs, and a reporter was prevented from asking a question about the situation to star Rockets players James Harden and Russell Westbrook. Even league icon LeBron James played a part in the debacle and faced heavy criticism for stating that Morey “wasn’t educated” before speaking about the issue on Twitter.
To comprehend the NBA’s panicked reaction, one must understand how and why the league has maintained a long-standing partnership with China. It began when former Rockets player Yao Ming was drafted by the team #1 overall in 2002. There were few if any Asian players in the NBA before Yao entered the league, with little fan interest. But he quickly cashed in on his potential, becoming an All-Star by 2003, and his success brought attention and interest from the Chinese people. Yao even received the most All-Star votes ever in 2005, beating Michael Jordan’s record with over 2.5 million votes.
The Rockets and the NBA capitalized on his popularity and established a working relationship with China, striving to build the league’s appeal and tap into the revenue potential that billions of citizens provided. Keeping this in mind, it is easy to see why team owner Fertitta and commissioner Silver reacted the way they did; the NBA desperately wants to keep the league’s relationship with China intact.
The most telling part of this controversy, though, has been the collective Chinese reaction to the ordeal and the ways in which it signifies the effectiveness of the Chinese government’s propaganda efforts regarding Hong Kong. Much of the notable reaction to Morey’s tweet has come from outside of the Chinese government, showing that their attempts to convince the public that the Hong Kong protests are an anti-nationalist separation movement are working.
Morey was not trying to be controversial by commenting on the protests, and while he is a high-level employee of the team, he does not interact with China on a day to day basis. The fact that the Chinese government and its citizens have pushed back so hard on one tweet means that no matter what the government published, the protests have been deeply concerning for mainland China, and it will not be a problem that goes away soon.
Photo courtesy of 451 Research (Flickr).