On Friday, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey posted on Twitter about his support for the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong that have resulted in violent clashes with police during the last four months. “Fight for Freedom,” Morey wrote. “Stand with Hong Kong.”
That’s hardly incendiary political rhetoric, yet the statement provoked the Chinese Basketball Association to suspend its partnership with the Rockets—one of the country’s most popular NBA teams since Yao Ming was a star in Houston—and Tencent, the NBA’s digital partner in China, announced it would end media coverage of the team. That’s a big deal for a league that sees major growth opportunity in the Chinese market, and it’s made even one of the league’s best GMs potentially expendable.
Morey’s job reportedly is in jeopardy as NBA owners, Rockets star James Harden, and the league itself have rebuked him. While NBA commissioner Adam Silver vowed that “Daryl Morey is supported in terms of his ability to exercise his freedom of expression,” he stopped well short of supporting the content of that expression. Morey felt the need to delete the tweet and issue a new statement in which he apologized to anyone whom he’d offended and acknowledged that he was considering other perspectives on the Hong Kong protests.
From an American point of view, signaling support for the demonstrators in Hong Kong, who are protesting the Chinese government’s attempts to curtail the autonomous region’s independence, isn’t controversial. But that’s not the way many people in China feel about it, and it’s definitely not the way the Chinese government sees it. The authoritarian nation has a history of using its economic power to curtail the political speech of outsiders fearful of losing access to its consumers.
It’s tough to imagine any another reason why Morey, coming off seven consecutive playoff appearances (and just a year removed from being crowned the NBA’s Executive of the Year), would find himself on the outs with his team’s owner and the league’s brass. Yet the extent to which what Morey expressed was a near-universal expression of American values underlined on Sunday by the responses of two major Texas political figures, Senator Ted Cruz and his 2018 challenger, presidential hopeful Beto O’Rourke.
The only thing the NBA should be apologizing for is their blatant prioritization of profits over human rights. What an embarrassment. https://t.co/bbiwCBTwc1
— Beto O'Rourke (@BetoORourke) October 7, 2019
— Ted Cruz (@tedcruz) October 7, 2019
The list of things that Ted Cruz and Beto O’Rourke agree on is short, but the idea that the NBA should be standing by Morey is right at the top. At a time at which Americans are so deeply divided that we can’t even agree on Willie Nelson anymore, the fact that Cruz and O’Rourke offered nearly identical responses to the NBA’s handling of the situation could almost be seen as a cause for celebration. Apparently we do still share some common values, even in our hyper-polarized times!
Unfortunately, American companies likewise seem eerily unified in heeding Beijing’s wishes when there’s big money involved. Last year, the Gap issued an obsequious apology to the nation for selling a t-shirt that showed a map only of mainland China, omitting the disputed territories of Tibet and Taiwan; all of the t-shirts were destroyed. Delta, Zara, Marriott, Versace, Mercedes-Benz, Audi, Coach, and Givenchy likewise have all issued similar apologies.
An upheaval in the NBA has even broader implications, though. American sports—our leagues, teams, and athletes—are important ambassadors for the U.S. on the world stage. If the league’s stance is that even a successful, top-level exec needs to be reprimanded before he can return to work, it sends an unfortunate message about what values the NBA is representing around the world.