On the eve of a preseason basketball exhibition game in Tokyo, Daryl Morey, general manager of the Houston Rockets, sent out a tweet that reverberated around the globe. Morey expressed support for the pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, with a graphic that read “Fight for Freedom, Stand with Hong Kong.” Such a sentiment has bipartisan support from many in the United States and while Morey quickly retracted it, the message garnered many positive and negative responses. The global significance of Morey’s single tweet revealed a great deal about China and the NBA, and brought into question the tensions between free speech and business practices.

China’s government, people and business sectors have been overwhelmingly angry about Morey’s since-deleted tweet and sought for Morey to be censored in addition to other consequences. In the days since the general manager’s tweet was posted, Chinese state-run media have pulled Rockets games from television, basketball apparel stores have removed Rockets merchandise, and fans have pulled their support for the Rockets and, in some cases, the NBA as a whole.

All of this has forced the NBA and the Rockets into a full-scale cleanup operation. The NBA issued a press release apologizing for any offense caused by Morey’s purportedly insensitive comments. Houston’s owner Tilman Fertitta publicly emphasized that his team is “NOT a political organization” and that Morey “does NOT speak for the @HoustonRockets.” Even Morey himself sent out a two-part tweet apologizing to anyone who was offended and reaffirming his team and the league’s commitment to China moving forward. All of these responses and more sprung out of one seven-word tweet.

China is the NBA’s largest foreign market, with millions of fans who purchase merchandise, tune into games and actively engage with the league. The Houston Rockets – often associated with China since 2002 when Houston drafted the 7-foot-6 Shanghai-native Yao Ming with the first overall draft pick – have been historically beloved in the country. Many of these Chinese fans have expressed willingness to take their team loyalties and expenditures on sports elsewhere. The league has viewed it as a wise business strategy to cater to the will of China and its people by avoiding any sort of critical political statements from league employees and has acted accordingly in the Morey affair.

Yet the NBA’s self-abasing behavior regarding China and its political sensitivities is deeply concerning. By using the Chinese economy and people as a weapon, the totalitarian Chinese media and government have just been granted the power to stifle American speech, even outside of Chinese soil. Instead of prioritizing values of free expression, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and the league placed the economic interests of what is essentially a multi-billion-dollar business ahead of the constitutional rights of their own employees.

In the past, the NBA has had no trouble taking action in accordance with its stated morals. The league was willing to pull an All Star game from Charlotte, North Carolina — where one of its teams, the Hornets, is based — because league officials strongly disagreed with the state’s “Bathroom Bill.” Yet in their responses to Daryl Morey’s tweet, the NBA would not dare to risk offending President Xi Jinping or Chinese fans. Though Silver later made an effort to clarify the league’s position and show support for free speech, the damage of capitulation had already been done, and the precedent had already been set.

This incident from last week begs the question of how much American companies could soon be forced to cave to the demands and sensitivities of the Communist Party of China. What sorts of discussion topics could soon be off limits to U.S. citizens for fear of losing their jobs? It is frightening to think that authoritarian limits to free speech in China could be forced on anyone around the globe, especially in America, and that businesses would fall in line in their efforts to simply follow the money.

This recent news also brings about a final question as to how U.S. consumers — still the majority of the NBA’s market — should respond in the face of last week’s events. While Chinese fans continue to grow upset over Morey’s expression of his beliefs, American supporters should hold the league accountable for its weak handling of the situation and willingness to throw a member of its community under the bus for simply utilizing his right to free expression.

The NBA, which often speaks of its core values, has a choice to make between living up to such morals or not having any. If league executives decide to forget about their ethical commitments once their profits stand to take a hit, they will have granted tremendous and dangerous power to Xi and his regime. If Americans truly consider free speech to be a fundamental value, we must be willing to vote with our wallets and TV remotes. A policy of appeasement from our companies toward China is equally disturbing and as inappropriate as it would be for our government. 

Noah Ente can be reached at noahente@umich.edu.

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