NBA commissioner Adam Silver is ready to accept the consequences for defending freedom of speech, even if supporting those values means losing the riches that Chinese business partnerships have brought the league.
Forty years after the Washington Bullets played exhibition games in Beijing and Shanghai as the first NBA club to visit China, the league and its lucrative relationship with the nation of 1.4 billion people faces its toughest test.
It’s only the latest battle over values championed by Silver, the 57-year-old American who replaced David Stern as the NBA’s boss in February 2014. He has banned an owner for life for racist remarks and moved an NBA All-Star Game over a law discriminating against the gay and transgender communities.
A socially conscious league whose biggest star players have criticized US President Donald Trump and shunned ceremonial White House visits — LeBron James famously calling Trump a “bum” in a 2017 tweet — was thrust into controversy again Friday when Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted: “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.”
Hong Kong has been rocked by protests since June that were ignited by a now-scrapped plan to allow extraditions of criminal suspects to the mainland but snowballed into a movement calling for more democratic freedoms and police accountability.
Morey’s tweet shattered some China sponsorships for the Rockets, retired Chinese star Yao Ming’s former club. Chinese television dropped planned telecasts of NBA pre-season games in China.
Early NBA statements on the issue drew fire from US critics as overly capitulating, setting the stage for Silver to settle matters in Tokyo.
“The long-held values of the NBA are to support freedom of expression, and certainly freedom of expression by members of the NBA community,” Silver said.
“I understand there are consequences from that exercise of, in essence, his freedom of speech. We will have to live with those consequences.
“It’s my hope that for our Chinese fans and our partners in China, they will see those remarks in the context of now a three-decade, if not longer, relationship.”
The same week that American television show “South Park” parodied US companies who cave in to Chinese censorship for commercial gain, the NBA was challenged to put its values over its bottom line and stand up to financial backers.
“As a league, we’re not willing to compromise those values,” Silver said. “I’m sympathetic to our interests here and to our partners who are upset. I don’t think it’s inconsistent on one hand to be sympathetic to them and at the same time stand by our principles.”
Silver stressed he regrets Chinese NBA fans are upset but would not apologize for Morey’s tweet.