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NBA faces major political test after Houston GM's Hong Kong tweet

Daniel Roberts
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It started with a tweet, and now NBA Commissioner Adam Silver faces a major political problem.

Over the weekend, Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey tweeted out an image that said, “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong,” a message showing support for the Hong Kong protesters. If you are not fully informed on the Hong Kong protests, to put it simply: Hong Kong citizens are speaking out for their right to democratic freedom, and against government control from mainland China. As the protests have continued, police violence has ensued.

There is obvious global and political baggage here.

The NBA does major business in China, where its game has become extremely popular over the last decade, giving the league and its partners a gateway to expand American pro basketball’s global reach. In 2016, Disney-owned ESPN signed a major deal with Chinese tech giant Tencent to stream NBA coverage in China. Tencent has a $1.5 billion partnership with the NBA.

Needless to say, the NBA’s business partners in China did not like Daryl Morey’s tweet. (He deleted it, but the damage was done.) Coincidentally, the Chinese Basketball Association is led by Yao Ming, the former Houston Rockets star. If all of that wasn’t bad enough, the timing was especially awkward: the Brooklyn Nets and L.A. Lakers are set to play an exhibition game in Shanghai this week, part of the league’s public effort to grow the game in China.

After the Morey tweet, the Chinese Basketball Association threatened to end its relationship with the Rockets; Tencent threatened to stop streaming Rockets games; Chinese sneaker brand Li Ning says it will end its relationship with the Rockets.

China Daily, the state-owned Chinese newspaper, was unequivocal in a public statement: "Let's hope the incident with Morey and the Houston Rockets will teach other companies a lesson: the big Chinese market is open to the world, but those who challenge China's core interests and hurt Chinese people's feelings cannot make any profit from it.”

The NBA and Commissioner Adam Silver have responded by trying to make good with China. By doing so, Silver has now angered many basketball fans at home in America.

FILE - In this June 2, 2016, file photo, NBA commissioner Adam Silver speaks during a news conference before Game 1 of basketball's NBA Finals between the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers in Oakland, Calif. Silver said Wednesday, Oct. 12, discussions will resume on the collective bargaining agreement next week after he returns from China, with two months left before a key deadline. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)
NBA commissioner Adam Silver speaks during a news conference before Game 1 of basketball's 2016 NBA Finals between the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)

First Morey tweeted out an apology on Sunday night, saying, “I did not intend my tweet to cause any offense to Rockets fans and friends of mine in China... I have always appreciated the significant support our Chinese fans and sponsors have provided... My tweets are my own and in no way represent the Rockets or the NBA.”

Within an hour, the NBA then issued its own apology, distancing itself even further from Morey, saying his tweet “deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China, which is regrettable.” The Chinese language version of the NBA’s statement was different, and far more harshly worded about Morey’s tweet, saying it “severely hurt the feelings of Chinese fans.”

Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta was even faster to distance the team from Morey, tweeting late on Friday night that Morey, “does NOT speak for the Houston Rockets. Our presence in Tokyo is all about the promotion of the NBA internationally and we are NOT a political organization.”

Brooklyn Nets owner Joe Tsai posted a long letter on Facebook condemning Morey’s tweet, saying, “I am sure he’s a fine NBA general manager, and I will take at face value his subsequent apology that he was not as well informed as he should have been. But the hurt that this incident has caused will take a long time to repair.”

Houston Rockets player James Harden jumped on board and apologized to China on Monday at a practice in Tokyo, Japan, saying, “We apologize. You know we love China. We love playing there.”

All of this has surprised NBA fans who have for years praised the NBA as the most open U.S. sports league, particularly since the start of Silver’s tenure, which began with his much-praised swift action to ban L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling after he was recorded making racist remarks about his players.

The league’s growth and global popularity in recent years is often assigned to the fact that it allows its players to freely speak out on social issues—some have even theorized that is why the NBA avoided the political tensions the NFL endured, because players already feel they have a free platform.

Now fans see the league as kowtowing to China, prioritizing its business prospects there over supporting Hong Kong citizens’ right to protest. And there’s little chance the NBA and Silver can get a win-win here: if Chinese partners refuse to let this go, the NBA may get pressured to fire Morey to please those partners, even at the risk of enraging fans.

Silver, speaking in Japan on Monday to the Kyodo News, acknowledged the growing criticism from fans, and responded. “I have read some of the media suggesting that we are not supporting Daryl Morey, but in fact we have,” he said. “As a values-based organization, I want to make it clear that Daryl Morey is supported in terms of his ability to exercise his freedom of expression.”

The problem is that the public response so far from the league, the team, the team’s owner, the team’s star player, and even other team owners, does not make it look like Morey is being supported.

If it comes down to a moral stand or a move to protect its business, do not expect the league to prioritize anything over its financial health.

In other words, Adam Silver is at risk of losing his sterling reputation with fans.

Daniel Roberts is the sports business writer at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.

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