Two thoughts about the fuss between China and the NBA: It’s ridiculous that a tweet supporting freedom in Hong Kong would upset the Chinese the way it has, but the pro basketball league’s commissioner looks even more ridiculous as he grovels before a huge foreign market.
The problem began last weekend when the general manager of the Houston Rockets posted, and quickly deleted, a tweet with an image that said, “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.”
The general manager, Daryl Morey, was referring to protests in Hong Kong over the past several months. If he made a mistake, it’s that he forgot that his team has a huge following in China because the country’s best-ever player, Yao Ming, spent several years with the Rockets.
The Chinese know how to be offended when it suits their purposes. They have used the strategy effectively with other Western businesses that just don’t understand that all the people in China love being repressed by their government.
The Chinese Basketball Association has suspended its relationship with the Rockets. Chinese state television did not broadcast an NBA exhibition game in Shanghai Thursday as planned, and says it won’t show another one scheduled for Saturday in Shenzhen. An internet company that has a $1.5 billion deal with the league was following suit.
The retaliation has gotten so petty in China as to pull the Rockets’ merchandise from store shelves and to paint over some of the murals featuring the team’s stars and logo.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver is trying to walk a fine line. He apologized to anyone in China who was offended by Morey’s tweet, but defended the right to free expression.
The owner of the Brooklyn Nets, who is a Chinese internet billionaire, said the tweet has damaged the league’s relationship with its fans in China and will take a long time to repair. But worst of all, Houston players James Harden and Russell Westbrook apologized for the tweet and said they love their Chinese fans.
That is sick, because NBA players sometimes delight in criticizing Americans about unfairness in this country. The players rarely hesitate to use their pulpit to air their grievances, no matter who gets offended. So it’s a shame that two prominent players, along with the commissioner, won’t stick up forcefully for a team official advocating freedom for Hong Kong.
The NBA has spent three decades cultivating a relationship with the Chinese government, and it clearly has paid off. Otherwise the commissioner wouldn’t be so apologetic.
Yes, China is the world’s biggest market, and the NBA has grown its game and made lots of money there. And that popularity is the card of strength the league ought to be playing, but for some reason has chosen not to.
If China is going to let one critical tweet damage its relationship with the NBA, fine. The league should quietly withdraw and see how its leaders explain to the country’s basketball fans that the Houston Rockets chose to support freedom of speech over censorship.
It’s too bad that won’t happen, though. Apparently the North American market isn’t enough for the NBA. That’s a justifiable business decision, but league executives, owners and players need to know that they’re playing with fire in China. One day they’ll get burned.