Daryl Morey set off a firestorm in China over the weekend when he posted an image on Twitter that read, “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong.” Tensions between Hong Kong and Beijing, which controls the former British colony, have been fueled by months of political unrest.
The NBA team’s partnerships in China were thrown into doubt. CCTV 5, the sports channel of China’s top state broadcaster, announced that it would suspend airing Houston Rockets events on television.
NBA expresses regret
The backlash triggered responses from the NBA and Morey. The NBA said Monday that it recognizes that Morey’s views “have deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China, which is regrettable.”
“While Daryl has made it clear that his tweet does not represent the Rockets or the NBA, the values of the league support individuals educating themselves and sharing their views on matters important to them,” NBA Chief Communications Officer Mike Bass said in a statement, which was published on the Chinese social media website Weibo. “We have great respect for the history and culture of China and hope that sports and the NBA can be used as a unifying force to bridge cultural divides and bring people together.”
Morey’s original tweet on the subject has since been deleted. In a new series of tweets on Monday, he said that he was speaking on his own behalf.
“I did not intend my tweet to cause any offense to Rockets fans and friends of mine in China,” Morey said. “I was merely voicing one thought, based on one interpretation, of one complicated event. I have had a lot of opportunity since that tweet to hear and consider other perspectives.”
Houston Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta tried to distance the team from politics. The team is in Tokyo for a series of preseason games against the Toronto Raptors this week.
Morey “does NOT speak for the @HoustonRockets. Our presence in Tokyo is all about the promotion of the @NBA internationally and we are NOT a political organization,” Fertitta said Saturday on Twitter.
The sport and its stars are also popular on social media. The league has 180 million followers on Chinese social media, according to NBA China. And star players also have huge followings: Kobe Bryant, the former Los Angeles Lakers legend who retired in 2016, has 8.25 million followers on Weibo.
Brock Silvers, managing director at investment firm Kaiyuan Capital, said the league’s response was quick and predictable, given how politicized Hong Kong has become.
“But a league renowned for marketing savvy may be committing an uncharacteristic turnover,” he added. “The NBA’s response reflexively expressed an extreme political correctness, one that may be at odds with the NBA’s players and fans. And at some point there may be a broader backlash that leaves the NBA seeming both out of touch and less entertaining. “
Controversy in the United States
The NBA’s response has already been criticized by several US politicians.
Beto O’Rourke, a Democrat from Texas who is running for the party’s presidential nomination in 2020, called the NBA’s response “an embarrassment.”
“The only thing the NBA should be apologizing for is their blatant prioritization of profits over human rights,” he wrote on Twitter.
“Chinese citizens stand united when it comes to the territorial integrity of China and the country’s sovereignty over her homeland. This issue is non-negotiable,” he said.
Tsai also partially defended Morey, while urging Chinese fans to “keep the faith” in the NBA.
“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,” he said. “But the hurt that this incident has caused will take a long time to repair.”
CNN’s Yong Xiong contributed to this report.