The enduring unrest in Hong Kong has ensnared an unlikely organization: the National Basketball Association.
Controversy erupted last week after Daryl Morey, the Houston Rockets' general manager, tweeted in solidarity with protesters in Hong Kong. The tweet, which has since been deleted, was met with an immediate backlash in China and resulted in the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) cutting all ties with the Texas team.
"Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong," Morey's tweet read.
The message hit a particularly sensitive nerve in China because the Rockets, which drafted Chinese basketball star Yao Ming in 2002, enjoy enormous popularity in the country. Yao retired in 2011 and has served as the CBA's chairman since 2017.
Morey's tweet was also widely condemned by Chinese officials and sports brands that collaborate with the Rockets. The Chinese Consulate General in Houston said it was "deeply shocked by the erroneous comments," adding that "anybody with conscience" would support efforts by the Hong Kong authorities to restore stability.
On Sunday, Morey attempted to quell tensions, saying that he did not intend the "tweet to cause any offense to Rockets fans and friends of mine in China." He added that his tweet did not represent the opinion of the Rockets or the NBA. The team's billionaire owner, Tilman Fertitta, also tweeted that Morey "does NOT speak" for the Rockets, which is "NOT a political organization."
Houston Rockets' Yao Ming during a game in 2007. Photo Credit: David Phillip/AP/Shutterstock
Unrest in Hong Kong first broke out in June in opposition to legislation that would have permitted extraditions to mainland China. Residents largely, however, have taken to the streets to voice their objection to China's growing influence over the city's government and Hong Kong at large, which has enjoyed relative autonomy as a special administrative region for the last two decades.
Demonstrations have ebbed and flowed, but significantly escalated in recent weeks with numerous violent clashes erupting between protesters and police. Authorities have been widely condemned for abuses of power and excessive uses of force against demonstrators, who police claim are rioters.
In an editorial on Monday, Global Times, an official newspaper of the Chinese government, slammed Morey, saying he has "neither the IQ nor the EQ to talk about political topics" and said his comment set the Rockets' "Chinese fans ablaze."
In recent years, basketball and the NBA have become wildly popular in China. Top players are largely household names, and NBA teams travel often to China to play live games and hold promotion events. The CBA estimates that over 300 million people — nearly the entire U.S. population — play basketball in China.
"[China] is a very, very important market for basketball … and for the whole NBA," said Rick Welts, the president of the Golden State Warriors. The controversy surrounding Morey's tweet, Welts added, is not going to be "nearly as significant as what the NBA continues to invest [in China] and has over the last many decades."
Along with the CBA, several Chinese sports and broadcasting companies condemned and cut ties with the Rockets.
China's state-run broadcaster, CCTV, said it will no longer air Rockets' games and Tencent, a sports streaming platform, suspended its partnership with the team. In July, Tencent inked a deal with the NBA giving the company another five-years as the exclusive digital partner of the league in China. The agreement made Tencent the NBA's largest partner outside the U.S., according to the league.
The major Chinese sportswear brand, Li-Ning, and the Shanghai Pudong Development Bank announced they too would suspend sponsorship deals with the Rockets, Chinese state media reported.
Joe Tsai — the billionaire executive of the Chinese conglomerate, Alibaba, and the new owner of the Brooklyn Nets — also waded into the issue, explaining in a lengthy Facebook post that China's sensitivity towards criticism from abroad stems primarily from the country's long history of confronting foreign occupations and interference.
"The hurt that this incident has caused will take a long time to repair," Tsai wrote. "I ask that our Chinese fans keep the faith in what the NBA and basketball can do to unite people from all over the world."
The NBA, however, has also faced major criticism from U.S. politicians across the aisle for walking back their stance on the issue.
"As a lifelong Houston Rockets fan, I was proud to see Morey call out the Chinese Communist Party's repressive treatment of protestors in Hong Kong," Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said on Twitter. "Now, in pursuit of big $$, the NBA is shamefully retreating."
Julián Castro — the former San Antonio Mayor, U.S. Housing Secretary, and a current 2020 Democratic presidential candidate — condemned China for "using its economic power to silence critics" and said the U.S. should "not allow American citizens to be bullied by an authoritarian government."
In its editorial, Global Times countered the criticism from within the U.S., saying "Morey does have the freedom to praise Hong Kong protesters, just like the Chinese fans also have the freedom to abandon the Rockets."
In a separate incident, the long-running animated series South Park similarly fell into controversy after an episode poking fun at the self-censorship of U.S. entertainment companies in order to distribute in China provoked Beijing into removing the entirety of the cartoon's episodes online.