NEW YORK — Daryl Morey tweeted, China responded, and on the opening weekend of the NBA preseason the league has found itself embroiled in a geopolitical scandal that threatens its relationship with a basketball starved country that generates hundreds of millions in revenue each year.
Remember when tampering was the NBA’s biggest problem?
Who knows why Morey, Houston’s affable, MIT-educated general manager chose Friday to tweet out support for Hong Kong’s freedom movement. Tensions between China and Hong Kong have boiled over in recent months, with protests sparked by China’s demand to extradite alleged criminals off Hong Kong and to the Chinese mainland breaking out on the island. The U.S., long supportive of the one-country, two-systems declaration Hong Kong agreed to with China in 1997, has faced criticism, with President Donald Trump telling China he would stay out of the current dispute, per CNN.
It’s a mess.
And the NBA has stepped right in it.
The foundation of the NBA’s relationship with China is simple: Money, and a whole lot of it. Interest in NBA basketball grew slowly in China in the 1980’s and 90’s, took off when Yao Ming was drafted first overall in 2002 and is now growing at a feverish pace. More than 300 million people play basketball in China, the NBA will proudly tell you, with nearly 500 million watching on Tencent’s streaming platform last season. Some 21 million watched Game 6 of last season’s Finals alone.
The NBA rakes in the cash, too. The league inked a new five-year deal with Tencent in June that’s reportedly worth at least $500 million. The NBA plays exhibition games in China—the Nets and Lakers will play there this week, with ESPN tagging along with a studio show—while top level players routinely make offseason trips to promote their sneaker lines.
Morey’s tweet caused a panic among league officials, several sources familiar with the league office told SI.com. And with good reason: China’s response was swift. Chinese sponsors yanked money from the Rockets. The Chinese Basketball Association—helmed by, of course, Yao—suspended any cooperation with the Rockets. Tencent announced it would suspend coverage of anything related to Morey.
It got bad, quickly. And it could get worse.
“This will be a thing,” Ben Rhodes, a Deputy National Security Advisor under Barack Obama, told SI.com in an email. “Chinese state media feeds the Chinese people a steady diet of anti-Hong Kong protests propaganda, and will attack anyone perceived as not falling in line with the Chinese government. The Chinese public is very susceptible to this because the state controls so much of the media. It’s not uncommon for the Chinese government to pressure Western businesses to stay silent on human rights. In particular, they like to send a message that there will be consequences if you don’t fall in line, and it looks like they’re making the Rockets an example to send a message to the NBA.”
Yes—and the NBA knows it. Rockets owner Tillman Fertitta quickly distanced the team from Morey’s tweet. Morey—one of the league’s most visible officials on social media, with over 200,000 followers—offered a clarification of his tweet (“I was merely voicing one thought, based on one interpretation, of one complicated event) while emphasizing that his words were “my own and in no way represent the Rockets or the NBA.”
On Sunday night, the NBA issued a boilerplate statement of its own, stopping short of admonishing Morey (“We recognize that the views expressed by Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey have deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China, which is regrettable”), which said the “values of the league support individuals’ educating themselves and sharing their views on matters important to them” while offering the league as a “unifying force to bridge cultural divides and bring people together.”
Here’s something the NBA must fear: The 45th president and the 65 million Twitter followers he has with him. Trump hates the NBA. Check that—Trump hates that NBA players have no time for him. The Warriors won two titles in Trump’s time in office. A White House visit, customary for a major sports champion, never happened. Stephen Curry has been critical of Trump. His coach, Steve Kerr, has too. In a response to Trump disinviting the Warriors to the White House, LeBron James called Trump a bum.
Wading into this fight is tricky—dump on Morey and the NBA, risk showing passive approval for China’s actions in Hong Kong, not to mention going after a popular executive from a Texas sports team in an election cycle—but doesn’t this feel like just the kind of battle Trump likes to be in?
The NBA wants this story to go away, which has infuriated some of its followers. The league is a strong supporter of its players and coaches taking stands on social issues, yet punts on its own opportunity to back an executive taking a position on one. The NBA yanked an All-Star game out of Charlotte because it didn’t like an intolerant bathroom law but is deeply embedded in China, a country that Human Rights Watch says has carried out “mass arbitrary detention, torture, and mistreatment” of Turkic Muslims living in the northwest regions of the country—among other things. The league supports the causes of its members … just not ones that impact the bottom line.
That’s not a criticism—it’s a reality. Because the truth is Morey is right. China, says Rhodes, is effectively “attempting to erase [Hong Kong’s] civil liberties.” U.S. policy has long been to hold China to the agreement it made decades ago. China, in its attempt to drag people it deems criminals into its murky legal system—Chinese prosecutors win 99% of their cases—is attempting to undermine it. Says Rhodes, “the basic human rights of the people of Hong Kong are at stake. Will they be subsumed into mainland China, or will they still have a status that affords them more political freedoms?”
This doesn’t just loom as one of the most significant challenge of Adam Silver’s tenure as commissioner—it’s the most. Soon, two of the NBA’s marquee teams will touch down in China. The NBA’s biggest star, James, will be with them. He will be asked about Morey’s message. His response will resonate around the world. The NBA has earned near universal praise for championing causes that don’t impact its income, for supporting players, even passively, for speaking out on issues that don’t dramatically change the bottom line.
“I think the NBA should not police speech,” Rhodes said. “The people of Hong Kong are risking their lives to stand up for human rights and democracy; that’s more to risk than some money.”
Indeed, this is a new problem, a bigger problem.
The Chinese buy sneakers, too.