As the NBA deals with its crisis in China after Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey sent a tweet on Oct. 4 supporting Hong Kong protesters, ESPN brass has warned its on-air talent not to get political when covering the story.
And at the Yahoo Finance All Markets Summit in New York City on Thursday, ESPN NBA analyst Jay Williams passed the same advice on to NBA players, referencing James Harden, the Rockets star who apologized to China after Morey’s tweet.
“I would not advise any player to speak out on that issue,” Williams said. “We get into this thing freedom of speech, but with freedom of speech are repercussions. If I were walking down the street and said something on TMZ that was a negative reflection of ESPN and Disney, I would have to pay the repercussions of that. So for players, there’s no upside to them saying anything.”
As for how the league has handled it, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver earlier this week said, “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... 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.”
Some critics saw that as a cleanup effort after the league’s first response, which included a league apology, a team apology, an apology from Morey, and rebukes of Morey from Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta and Brooklyn Nets owner Joe Tsai.
But George Pyne, a former Nascar and IMG executive who now runs his own VC firm Bruin Sports Capital, says that the NBA eventually got to the right place in its stance on the issue, and should stand by it.
“I think that where the commissioner landed is the right approach: ‘We’re going to stand up for freedom, free speech, freedom of expression,’ and if there’s a business penalty that comes along with standing up for free speech, then they’re going to have to live with it,” Pyne said on a panel with Williams at the All Markets Summit. “I think that’s where it is, they have to tough it out, and I don’t think there’s much more to say if you’re the NBA. Less is more, and you hope life goes on.”
Williams echoed the sentiment, saying that the NBA “should remain unapologetic about where they were and how they handled the situation.”
Of course, the NBA’s China fiasco is just the latest example of a lesson many American businesses are learning about the limitations of doing business in China: a huge untapped market of consumers, overseen by a communist government that limits free speech and attempts to exert the same demands on American companies operating there.
“When you do business in a territory that doesn’t have free speech, freedom of expression, free trade, there’s risk in that,” Pyne said. “And China’s not the only territory like that in the world.”
Indeed, speaking earlier in the day at the same event, Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shad Khan, who is CEO of car parts maker Flex-N-Gate, said, “I have a factory in China. And there are thousands of other people who have factories and operations in China, and they do very well. But you have to respect the norms.”
Williams, a former Duke basketball champion and NBA first-round draft pick, has been an ESPN analyst since 2008. Pyne, the former COO of Nascar and then president of IMG, launched Bruin Sports Capital in 2015.
Daniel Roberts is the sports business writer at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.