Hong Kong (CNN) French basketball player Guerschon Yabusele has been fined 10,000 yuan ($1,400) and given a warning for not raising his head during the Chinese national anthem before a game Friday, Chinese state media reported.Yabusele, who plays for the Chinese Basketball Association’s (CBA) Nanjing Monkey Kings, was photographed bowing his head as his teammates appear to be looking up as the anthem was playing, in a screenshot posted by the Global Times, a Chinese state-run tabloid.
Global Times reported that Yabusele was criticized on Chinese social media for being rude and not showing respect. Players in the NBA and other American sports leagues will often bow their heads and close their eyes during the US national anthem.
Yabusele had a brief career in the NBA after being drafted by the Boston Celtics in 2016. He played one season for the CBA’s Shanghai Sharks in 2016 before moving stateside in 2017. The Celtics waived him earlier this year, after which he returned to China.
Global Times reported other Western players have faced similar fines, including former NBA journeyman MarShon Brooks.
The fines come as China has become increasingly nationalistic and patriotic under President Xi Jinping, placing many Western businesses and athletes in tough positions. Companies that have not toed the line on hot button issues like the status of Taiwan, Tibet or Hong Kong have suffered serious consequences.
The NBA fell victim to this conflict earlier this year, after Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey expressed support for anti-government protests in Hong Kong in a tweet. Morey’s statement and the NBA’s subsequent decision to back hi led to numerous China-based businesses severing ties with the league amid a wider backlash.
NEW YORK — It’s time for Daryl Morey to come out of hiding, step forward and account for the storm he created a month ago.
Morey’s tweet in support of Hong Kong against China put the NBA and his direct employer, the Houston Rockets, in a precarious position with one of its international partners. The long-tenured general manager watched the world burn in the time since, perhaps smartly from his point of view, but enough time has passed that he should address the issue.
Five minutes after Morey’s tweet, Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta issued a strong rebuke. Five hours later, all hell broke loose. It hasn’t been quite five weeks since the Oct. 4 tweet, but it’s approaching that mark and Morey has been silent.
The storm that seemed overwhelming and all-encompassing has settled with the start of the regular season and the usual rhythm that accompanies the 82-game dance. Narratives and storylines driven by actual basketball have pushed Morey’s saga to the background and it’s fair to wonder if him potentially speaking up will restart a news cycle that has died down.
But Morey can’t skate on this, not in the way of punishment but accountability. He had his reasons for speaking up on the topic at the time he did it. Whether he thought about the ramifications is clearly unknown because he hasn’t spoken up since.
The dirty work was left to everyone else affected by his words.
The NBA had to issue a statement, then another stronger statement in the wake of its own stumble. Players who were in China and Tokyo had to bear the brunt of words they didn’t speak and had to interpret a deleted tweet that sent off an international firestorm.
Players were branded as hypocrites by the “shut up and dribble” crowd, as if caring and having intimate knowledge of one civil issue made them qualified to speak on foreign relations and business relationships that predated them and will exceed their own shelf lives.
The league was raked over the coals for a lukewarm response and clumsy handling, for its inconsistencies due to the relationship with a country whose values align through dollar signs not morality.
And as healthy as the conversation has been in some respects, Morey’s absence has been too noticeable for too long. He’s savvy with his words and thoughtful.
His approach has been copied throughout the league and he’s respected.
He’s not some adolescent youth that doesn’t know the weight of a tweet or a relationship — especially considering being in Houston and the franchise’s two decades-long partnership with China.
Morey isn’t required to speak on issues he’d rather keep private — to date he hasn’t spoken out on injustices that could be close to the hearts of his players and staff that happen right in his backyard, and he shouldn’t feel compelled to.
But he started this mess, and can’t run from it.
It isn’t quite cowardly, but it is noticeable when an outspoken voice goes silent and an always present figure turns invisible.
“He started it, he should finish it,” an NBA player told Yahoo Sports. “We didn’t ask to be in it, but we had to deal with that in another country.”
Had he resigned from his position to mitigate the damage, an argument could be made he wouldn’t have to defend his feelings. And although he doesn’t have to defend staying at his post in the quest to elevate the Rockets to championship status, it’s a little unsettling to see him retreat so easily and allow others to take the shrapnel of critiques from all around.
There’s no muzzle on Morey. Multiple league sources told Yahoo Sports that Morey hasn’t been instructed not to speak on the matter by the NBA, and the Rockets have said the same thing. It would be understandable if either party felt like Morey would do more damage by addressing his comments, but that isn’t the case.
Nobody will dispute Morey having the best of intentions with his tweet and most won’t even argue with the content. But intentions don’t pay the bills and silence won’t save any more money.
A league source told Yahoo Sports there is financial damage, but the estimates of a 15 to 20 percent salary-cap decrease was a doomsday scenario that won’t come to fruition. And if that happened, the players’ association would have serious grounds to approach the league about its players suffering tangibly from a situation they didn’t initiate — a battle commissioner Adam Silver doesn’t want to have through these recent years of labor peace.
Still, there’s been a price to pay as previously pristine reputations have been tarnished, even if only temporarily.
There’s inconsistencies across the board. The NBA has its tricky relationship with China, not dissimilar from many big-box American brands that clearly want to benefit from China’s massive population without endorsing its policies. LeBron James has been outspoken about many civic issues, particularly unarmed black people getting gunned down by police, but was eerily quiet when 12-year-old Tamir Rice was killed in James’ home state.
James’ Q rating took a blow when he took Morey to task but wasn’t as careful with his words as he should’ve been.
Morey, one would think, would want to stand on his principles and defend his feelings. His job shouldn’t be in jeopardy and if he were removed it would be a bad look for the NBA.
Seemingly, he has nothing to lose.
On the topic itself, hardly anyone disagrees.
But he started it, and larger conversations about international relationships, civic values and the value of the almighty dollar followed.
Earvin “Magic” Johnson just turned 60, and he’s still an icon both on and off the basketball court.
TODAY looks back at his remarkable career and life, and Craig Melvin talks to the NBA legend about Michael Jordan’s controversial comment about Steph Curry. Other topics include the tensions between the NBA and China, and how Johnson has lived with HIV for 28 years (and counting).
HOUSTON — A group of about 35 people staged a rally Saturday outside the Toyota Center before the Houston Rockets‘ 126-123 win over the New Orleans Pelicans to voice support for protesters in Hong Kong.
As fans filed into the arena, the demonstrators gathered in the entrance plaza, wearing black T-shirts emblazoned with the words “Fight For Freedom” on the front and “China, Stop Bullying” on the back. They held American flags as well as signs expressing support for free expression and criticizing the Chinese government. Two attendees held a large, gold banner that read, “Hong Kong’s fight is everyone’s fight.”
The rally was coordinated by two local groups: the Vietnamese Community of Houston and Vicinities and Texas for Hong Kong. The same coalition organized approximately 30 people on Thursday for the Rockets’ home opener, and they sat behind the south basket and stood holding their signs during stoppages in play.
The Rockets have been at the center of the conflict between the NBA and China that was sparked by the reaction to a tweet on Oct. 4 by Rockets general manager Daryl Morey expressing support for the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong. In the days that have followed, broadcasters in China, Chinese sponsors and the Chinese Basketball Association have severed or scaled back agreements with the NBA.
Chris Wong, a research scientist and Hong Kong native who has organized events in Houston to bring awareness to the situation in his home city, helped assemble participants from the local Hong Konger community for both Thursday’s and Saturday’s home games.
“My reaction [to the Morey tweet] was, ‘Great, someone is supporting and publicly speaking for Hong Kong,'” Wong said. “But the reaction from the Chinese government and the machinery in China was such an overreaction just for someone sending out a symbolic tweet. I was mad.”
The Rockets, who featured eight-time All-Star center Yao Ming for nearly a decade and played in the NBA’s first game in China in 2004, are one of China’s most popular NBA teams. The franchise has cultivated extensive commercial partnerships in the nation since drafting Yao in 2002. Although Tencent, an ESPN partner, has resumed streaming NBA games in China, the Rockets have not appeared on the platform in the opening week of the season.
Tram Ho, an internist who emigrated from Vietnam to the United States in 1982 after spending six months as a refugee in Hong Kong, said she was inspired to help organize the events in Houston by activists inside Barclays Center during a Brooklyn Nets preseason game. Tram, who counts herself as a casual Rockets fan first drawn to the NBA by retired Rockets legend Hakeem Olajuwon, attended both Thursday’s and Saturday’s games and believes the current friction between China and the NBA is a harbinger of a larger conflict.
“China is not only bullying the United States right now, but [it] has been bullying other countries in Asia and South China Sea for a long time,” Tram said. “I feel very sorry for Hong Kong, a democratic society. The two systems — it’s not going to work.”
Fanny Wong, a certified public accountant in her 50s who immigrated to the United States from Macao in the 1970s, held a sign that read, “Stand with Hong Kong, Be Taller than LeBron, who kneels down for ¥¥¥ [the symbol for Chinese Yuan].” She wore a James Harden-style costume beard with a red zipper over the mouth to symbolize what she characterized as the self-censorship of many NBA players.
“I can understand that a lot of athletes, they have a lot of financial investment,” Wong said. “What I would appreciate is that they be honest about that. Just say, ‘We have a lot of interests at stake there, and there are certain things we need to compromise.’ I’d respect that. They stood for justice somewhere else when there’s no financial conflict of interest. But then where there is a conflict of financial interest, ‘Oh, wait a minute. We don’t understand.’ To me, that’s a lie. I’d respect it more if they were honest about it.”
As game time neared, the group began to chant, “Stand for freedom, no censorship,” before breaking into staccato chants of “Morey, Morey, Morey” and then “NBA, NBA, NBA.”
“We are currently seeing people seeking profit over freedom,” Jean Lin, a 28-year-old Taiwanese-American research technician, said when asked how the situation with the NBA and China is instructive. “Making that money and reaching that big market in China becomes more prominent, disregarding true American values.”
At the beginning of Inside the NBA on Thursday, Ernie Johnson, Kenny Smith and Charles Barkley sat with commissioner Adam Silver just a couple days after the crew tackled the league’s China debacle for the first time this season. As a quick note for context about this segment’s somber tone and pacing, the crew spent the first couple minutes of the show discussing the death of Shaq’s sister, and everyone at the table had literally just sent their best wishes—Johnson sounded particularly shaken—to the analyst and his family.
Silver for the most part repeated talking points that other members of the league had brought up at one point or another. He said his main concern at the time he found out about Daryl Morey’s tweet was the safety of the two teams, the Nets and Lakers, playing a preseason game in China. He tried to claim the league never swayed from their “values of freedom of expression.” When Johnson pushed back on this claim, adding that no one interpreted the first statement that way, Silver tried to push the poor wording of the league’s statement on the fast-paced speed of society before allowing that he’d tried too carefully to “thread the needle” between supporting free expression and respecting China. Denying that the league suppressed any speech, or even hinted at doing so, was a common refrain.
Johnson then brought up comments that the elderly Lego-man vice president made earlier Thursday, when he called the NBA “a wholly owned subsidiary of the authoritarian regime,” adding that the league was “siding with the Chinese Communist Party and silencing free speech.” Silver had the following response:
“We’re going to double down on engaging with the people of China and India and throughout Africa, throughout the world regardless of their governments. Certainly if we get to a point where the U.S. government tells us we shouldn’t be doing business in certain territories or countries, we won’t. But I’m a firm believer that through sports, independent of governments, you bring people together, they acknowledge that commonality they create empathy. Through personal relationships, there’s no substitute. This league for decades has been on the ground in China, spreading the game, teaching the values of this game, and, again, I think those are core American values and I’ve never wavered.”
It’s this comment in particular that stands out as proof that the commissioner has just not learned any lessons from everything that’s happened. It would be nice to live in a world where the sport of basketball could mend all bridges and heal all wounds—something that Silver pretty much says later in the broadcast—but the fact that one tweet from a general manager nearly caused an international catastrophe shows that there are limits to the sport’s perceived power. Disregarding the kind of government in place when deciding where to expand the league’s reach will only continue to increase the likelihood that something similar to this Morey cycle could happen again. Sure, Silver says that he’ll fall in line with whatever restrictions the U.S. government puts on where the league can and can’t go, but expecting this administration to go out of its way to interfere with an American company’s business overseas—especially on moral grounds—gives the league an awful lot of not-at-all-coincidental breathing room.
Among Silver’s final comments is yet another concerning statement where he tries to de-politicize the league’s international business, saying, “The larger issue between the U.S. and China has absolutely nothing to do with the NBA.” It would be one thing if this comment were being made in a vacuum—though it still wouldn’t be great, as most people who have watched this shitshow unfold from the beginning would tell you—but this came just minutes after Silver had to respond to comments made by the actual vice president of the United States. What long appeared to separate the NBA from most other leagues was always the ability of those at the top to recognize that sports occur within the material realities of people around the world, and not outside of them. As if any more proof was necessary, it’s become clear that that posture was more an expression of business savvy than any real conviction.
You can watch the entirety of the Inside the NBA segment below:
LOS ANGELES — It’s still nearly three hours before tipoff of Tuesday night’s season opener between the Lakers and Clippers, and the man in the black surgical mask and backward baseball cap is starting to get antsy.
“You ready?” he asks a fellow volunteer.
Upon receiving a nod, he grabs a bagful of yellow and black “Stand with Hong Kong” T-shirts from the back of a rental truck and walks toward Staples Center in hopes of finding like-minded fans willing to display that message inside the arena.
The man known by the pseudonym “MWG” is one of three activists responsible for organizing the largest-scale protest yet of the NBA’s handling of Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey’s infamous tweet. It’s been nearly three weeks since Morey’s tweet supporting Hong Kong sent NBA luminaries scrambling to appease China, giving the appearance they care more about protecting their financial interests than defending Morey’s right to free speech.
In the wake of China’s outrage over Morey’s tweet, a Reddit user who goes by the pseudonym of “Sun Lared” posted, “Let’s pass out ‘Free Hong Kong’ T-shirts at Staples Center on Opening Night and make Chinese TV censor the whole audience.” Much to the Northern California resident’s surprise, the GoFundMe page he created to fund his cause raked in $43,000 within 48 hours.
“I thought maybe we could raise enough money to buy a few thousand shirts, but I was blown away by how much support we got,” Lared said. “I think it says a lot about how strongly people feel that American companies shouldn’t self censor themselves on China’s behalf.”
Overwhelmed by the notion of organizing a demonstration this massive on his own, Lared gladly accepted help from a pair of fellow Reddit users sympathetic to the cause. Los Angeles-area residents “MWG” and “Karpov” helped Lared design and print 13,000 T-shirts, rent a truck to get them to Staples Center and find dozens of fellow volunteers willing to help distribute them.
On Tuesday afternoon, the three men met for the first time in a parking lot across the street from Staples Center. None of the trio revealed their real names to anyone out of fear of harassment on social media or the Chinese government tormenting their friends or family in Hong Kong.
Lared and Karpov set a conservative goal of at least 1,000 fans wearing the “Stand with Hong Kong” shirts inside the arena, enough to make their presence known and bring attention to their cause. MWG had bigger objectives in mind, which is why he spent time earlier in the week scouting the walkways outside Staples Center to identify where the most foot traffic would be.
On Tuesday evening, MCW zipped around the outskirts of the arena, offering encouragement to the volunteers passing out shirts and advising them where to go next. He brought water bottles when the volunteers got thirsty, pamphlets when they ran low or bags of shirts when they were out of a certain size.
“I lived in Hong Kong from 1999-2000 and I loved it,” a man told him after accepting a shirt. “I hope it stays the same.”
Replied MWG, “That’s why we’re here.”
China vs. the NBA
The confrontation between the NBA and China erupted on Oct. 4. China took offense to Morey’s tweet and countered by attempting to use its economic clout to muzzle not only Morey but any other outspoken NBA luminaries tempted to speak up on Hong Kong’s behalf. Broadcasts of Rockets games were scrapped and sponsorship deals were halted.
Scrambling to protect the hundreds of millions of dollars at stake, the NBA released a statement calling Morey’s tweet “regrettable.” James Harden apologized, the owner of the Houston Rockets publicly rebuked Morey and LeBron James said Morey “wasn’t educated on the situation”
In the wake of those comments, several hundred protesters wearing black “Stand with Hong Kong” T-shirts attended the Brooklyn Nets’ final preseason game on Friday at the Barclays Center. One fan’s homemade sign targeted LeBron. Another read, “Don’t let China buy our silence. People are dying to be free.”
Among those in attendance that night was Nathan Law, a Yale grad student and former Hong Kong lawmaker who says he was imprisoned for several months in 2017 for his role in pro-democracy protests. According to Law’s Twitter account, the protesters targeted the Nets to “send a signal” to the team’s owner Joseph Tsai, co-founder of the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, that “the way he followed the CCP’s stigmatization and criticized Morey was disgraceful.”
Supporters of Hong Kong’s democracy movement organized larger-scale protests for the opening week of the NBA regular season, the first of which took place Tuesday night in Toronto before the reigning champion Raptors opened their title defense against the Pelicans. Mimi Lee, a financial adviser who founded the Torontonian HongKongers Action Group, raised enough money to purchase and distribute 7,000 yellow and black T-shirts that read, “The North stands with Hong Kong.”
“We want to make enough noise to show the world what is happening and raise awareness,” Lee said. “I grew up in Hong Kong and I went back to Hong Kong to work for nearly a decade after I graduated, and it’s heartbreaking to see how much things have changed. The majority of our rights have eroded and the Chinese are influencing more and more.”
A similar demonstration is scheduled to take place Thursday in San Francisco when the Golden State Warriors open their new arena. San Francisco resident Lee Bishop raised more than $13,000 via GoFundMe, purchased thousands of blue-and-yellow “Free Hong Kong” shirts and found more than 80 volunteers to help him pass them out.
“I think it’s extremely hypocritical that the NBA and its players are turning a blind eye to human rights violations,” Bishop said. “I just hope that everyone who is going to the game will embrace the message and stand up for what’s right. It will be great to let this broadcast go across the globe and let the world see that America stands with Hong Kong.”
‘You can’t put a price on freedom’
In Los Angeles, the organizers of the Staples Center protest had a lot to smile about as they observed their teams of volunteers handing out shirts. Though some Lakers and Clippers fans were too excited about the upcoming season not to display team colors or too fashion-conscious to don a free T-shirt, many others embraced the cause and slipped the pro-Hong Kong shirts over whatever they were wearing.
A hostess at a restaurant adjacent to Staples Center snuck away from her post long enough to grab T-shirts for herself and three colleagues. Moments later, a man in a faded Nick Van Exel jersey asked for an extra large. Up next was a dad who took a shirt for himself and his son and explained, “You can’t put a price on freedom.”
For the three organizers of the protest, the sight of people wearing the Hong Kong shirts was satisfying for different reasons. They wanted to show the people of Hong Kong that Americans have their back. They wanted to show China that Americans cannot be silenced. And they wanted to show NBA players and owners that there are consequences to putting Chinese dollars above American values.
“I think this particular protest has a lot more to do with freedom of speech in the U.S. than anything to do with Hong Kong,” Karpov said. “This is our turf in the U.S. This is our people exercising their most fundamental right of freedom of speech. I don’t know how it happened that a country that has a business relationship with us can now determine what we say.”
Each time Karpov, MWG and Lared returned to the rental truck throughout the evening, the pile of T-shirts outside kept getting smaller and smaller. At 6 p.m. Tuesday night, the protesters had distributed roughly half the 13,000 shirts they ordered. By tipoff, not many boxes of T-shirts remained.
There was far more Clippers red and blue or Lakers purple and gold in Staples Center than there were fans clad in “Stand with Hong Kong” shirts, but enough people wore them for the organizers of the protest to be satisfied. One kid even tricked the Staples Center video board operators into showing his “Stand with Hong Kong” shirt on the dance cam.
“Even if they don’t all wear them at the game and they wear them at the mall or the park, that’s spreading awareness,” Karpov said. “Hopefully the impact will be felt days and weeks after.”
The NBA’s opening night games on Tuesday were reportedly nixed from Chinese state television amid the ongoing controversy between the league and foreign country.
CCTV has historically televised the league’s opening games. But they pulled all NBA broadcasts in response to the Oct. 4 tweet by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, where the executive expressed support for the Hong Kong protesters, ESPN reported.
Meanwhile, Tencent, the league’s Chinese-based streaming partner, limited its schedule to just one game Tuesday night — the Los Angeles Lakers vs. Los Angeles Clippers.
The league over the summer cut a deal with Tencet, extending streaming rights to the company for five more years at an estimated cost of $1.5 billion, the site said.
Shaquille O’Neal on Tuesday came to the defense of Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey, who set off a firestorm between the NBA and China earlier this month when he tweeted his support for pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.
“One of our best values here in America is free speech — we’re allowed to say what we want to say and we are allowed to speak out on injustices and that’s just how it goes and if people don’t understand that that’s something they have to deal with,” Shaq said on TNT’s pregame show on opening night of the NBA season.
“It was unfortunate for both parties, and you’ve got people speaking out about something they don’t know what they’re talking about,” the four-time NBA champion continued. “Daryl Morey was right — whenever you see something going on anywhere in the world, you should have the right to say, ‘That’s not right.'”
Morey tweeted in support of the anti-government protesters on October 4, saying, “Fight for Freedom, Stand with Hong Kong.” As a result, several Chinese partners cut ties with the NBA, its largest broadcaster refused to air preseason games taking place in the country and the government called for Morey to be fired.
But Commissioner Adam Silver said the league supports free speech and there was “no chance” that the league would discipline Morey over his tweet. Meanwhile, Morey has not addressed the controversy since several tweets attempting to clarify his position on the protests.
Several of the league’s biggest stars, including LeBron James and James Harden, attempted to soften the blow. James called Morey’s comment “misinformed,” while Harden apologized for the tweet, saying, “We apologize. We love China. We love playing there.”
It’s been a difficult month for the NBA and commissioner Adam Silver, who has been dealing with the never-ending fallout from the NBA’s China situation. Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey’s now-deleted tweet supporting democracy in Hong Kong has had far-reaching effects, with both the NBA’s bottom line and LeBron James’ image taking a hit.
James’ response to Morey’s tweet wasn’t well received, with him toeing the NBA line and calling it “misinformed,” and later clarifying that he was upset by the timing of Morey’s tweet. But in an appearance on ESPN’s “Get Up” on Monday morning, Silver defended James’ response, as well as the decision many players have made to stay silent on the issue. Via Bleacher Report:
“I think that these players, I mean, take LeBron who has an incredible track record of doing things that have changed people’s lives in the United States to be asked to comment on a difficult foreign issue is, I think, again there’s free expression and he should say how he feels. But, freedom of speech also means the freedom not to speak. And I’ve often said to players about issues here at home: If it’s something you don’t know about and you don’t feel comfortable responding, that’s OK as well. So, it’s been no-win for a lot of those players, so I’m very sympathetic.”
Silver’s right in that this is a no-win for the players. Those who stay quiet are criticized for doing so, and those who don’t are criticized for either toeing the NBA line or commenting on a complex international situation. Players have been thrust into the middle of a kerfuffle they didn’t ask for, one that has immense financial ramifications for the NBA and them by extension. James and other players had appearances canceled in China over Morey’s tweet, and lost out on endorsements geared toward the Chinese market.
Even though the regular season begins on Tuesday, the NBA-China controversy doesn’t seem like it’s going to die down anytime soon. Over the weekend, Chinese state television issued a warning to Silver that he could face “retribution” for defending Morey and defaming China. Last week, Silver revealed that China had demanded that Morey be fired, which Silver would not do. In fact, he said that Morey wouldn’t even be fined for his tweet.
“This has been a very difficult moment between the NBA and China,” Silver said on ESPN. “My belief is … we will get back on track. People need to step back. Everybody has made their points. There is no secret here about what’s going on in China. … Basketball diplomacy and engagement is positive. That’s what we’re turning back to.”
Charles Barkley defends LeBron James’ China stance: ‘He had to look out for his business’
For that, LeBron’s been widely and sharply criticized.
But that criticism isn’t coming from NBA circles as the league maintains its united front in the mess that pits its significant financial stakes in China against the ability to speak freely on the plight of the people of Hong Kong.
To the surprise of nobody, Barkley — who is still on Nike’s payroll — was in James’ corner.
“I thought everybody was really unfair to LeBron,” Barkley said. “Everybody does business in China. Every American company does business in China. Why should LeBron not be able to protect his financial interests — and the NBA and Nike?”
When pressed on James declining to take a stance on human rights issues for people across the world while he regularly speaks freely on social justice issues, Barkley defended James’ right to choose his battles.
“Everybody don’t have to pick every battle to fight,” Barkley said. “LeBron is passionate about the things he wants to be passionate about. We don’t get to tell him what we want him to talk about.”
Earlier in the week, Silver had revealed at the Time 100 Health Summit in New York that China had asked the NBA to fire Morey over the tweet, which read “Fight For Freedom. Stand With Hong Kong.” The commissioner said that there was “no chance that’s happening.”
He added: “There’s no chance we’ll even discipline him.”
Silver has clarified the NBA’s position in recent public statements after his initial comments ignited criticism in the United States. The league’s first statement called Morey’s tweet “inappropriate” and said the NBA was “extremely disappointed.”
Despite admitting that the financial losses as a result of Morey’s comments have already been “substantial” and “may continue to be fairly dramatic,” Silver said that he is willing to deal with the consequences and protect Morey’s freedom of expression.
This, no doubt, has infuriated China. In the editorial, CCTV claimed Silver “fabricated lies out of nothing and has sought to paint China as unforgiving” in order to “please some American politicians.” After Silver’s initial statement, politicians on both sides of the aisle criticized the league:
The CCTV editorial continued:
Silver has spared no effort to portray himself as a fighter for free speech and used freedom of speech as an excuse to cover for Morey, who voiced his support for the violent actors in Hong Kong. This has crossed the bottom line of the Chinese people.
Every time the NBA-China scandal seems to be fading, another eruption underscores the increasingly difficult tightrope leagues, athletes and media companies walk as they do business with communist China.
Just in the past few days, LeBron James unleashed a furor from fans in both Hong Kong and the U.S. when he described Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey as “misinformed or not really educated” for his seven-word tweet that ignited the initial uproar. Then, NBA commissioner Adam Silver acknowledged his league had lost millions since Morey’s tweet and stated that the Chinese government had asked him to fire Morey. But the Chinese foreign ministry turned around and denied Silver’s claim, putting another round of pressure on the commissioner, just as normalcy seemed to be returning.
And on Friday night, hundreds of activists attended the Nets-Raptors preseason games wearing shirts and holding up signs in support of pro-Democracy protestors in Hong Kong.
The NBA has far and away the largest Western sports presence in China, but it’s hardly alone in having to navigate the challenges of doing business there. The NFL, Major League Baseball, the NHL, MMA, esports leagues — virtually every professional sports entity has worked to establish a foothold there, wooed by the country’s exploding economy and a population more than four times larger than that of the United States.
But according to experts, and as the NBA discovered swiftly, China’s burgeoning power has wrought a government even more committed to controlling the flow of information to its people and stifling dissent.
“Both the state and Chinese people are aware of the leverage they have over profit-seeking entities that are desperate to maintain access to the Chinese market,” Jonathan Sullivan, the Director of China Programs at the University of Nottingham Asia Research Institute, said by email. “Of course, it is the state that sets, adjudicates and enforces the rules. And if you transgress you can expect to be punished, at a time and method of the state’s choosing.”
Bill Bishop, a former media executive who has spent more than a decade living in China and analyzing the country, says the dynamics recently making headlines are not new.
“But the NBA events … made it much more of a mainstream issue,” he says. “In many ways, it’s harder for the leagues to keep their souls but also expand into China.”
Nevertheless, the NBA’s numbers in China reveal why leagues have persisted in trying to find their footing there. Plainly, there’s just so, so much money to be made.
Earlier this year, the NBA expanded its deal with internet behemoth Tencent to stream live games and make an array of content available to the company’s 1 billion users. The new contract, which begins next year, pays the NBA $300 million annually for the next five years — representing a threefold increase from the previous deal. (In 2016, ESPN and Tencent agreed to a five-year distribution agreement in which ESPN provided content to be shared across Tencent’s many platforms in China.)
The NBA has a long-standing contract with government-run CCTV to broadcast games live throughout the country, and while the financial specifics of that deal aren’t clear, the NBA has suggested the benefits are enormous.
“The value we generate from CCTV through sponsorships and all of our other initiatives — it’s hard to put a price on that,” David Shoemaker, then the CEO of NBA China, told Forbes in 2017.
Beyond its broadcast and social media deals, the NBA makes money in China from corporate sponsorships. There also are NBA training academies, NBA-themed play zones for kids in malls, NBA-themed “lifestyle complexes,” an NBA 2K League for gamers; an NBA youth development program, and more. On top of all that are the millions made by individual players through their own sponsorship contracts with Chinese companies.
Sports Business Journal recently estimated the NBA’s presence in China was worth $5 billion to the league.
“I don’t know a Chinese male that is not crazy about the NBA,” said Jim McGregor, a marketing expert who has lived in China for three decades and previously served as the chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in China. “I’m telling you, living on the ground here, I’m from Minnesota and every time I meet somebody here, they talk about the Timberwolves.”
This is exactly what every other league is chasing as they look to China.
Across the sports world, the message has become clear.
“The Chinese government has been very good about exporting their campaign of terror, if you will, to corporations, including sports entities, around the world,” says John Pomfret, a former Washington Post Beijing bureau chief and author of a book that traces the history of U.S.-China relations. “Everyone is afraid, and they’re afraid because the red line has been moving in a negative direction for a long time.”
If that wasn’t already clear to the NBA, it is now. After the Morey tweet, 11 of 13 Chinese companies that have sponsorship deals with the league temporarily halted them. Long-planned broadcasts of two exhibition games were canceled, and the broadcast partnerships, including with Tencent, appear in limbo. CCTV and Tencent have said they would not show or stream Rockets games, and Silver made his comment Thursday at the Time 100 Health Summit that the Chinese government had asked him to fire Morey.
“We said there’s no chance that’s happening,” Silver told ABC’s Robin Roberts. “There’s no chance we’ll even discipline him.”
He added, “Our games are not back on the air in China as we speak, and we’ll see what happens next.” All of this serves to underscore the push and pull league officials, coaches and players are facing as they try to weather the controversy.
“These players have a real issue if they’re very active speaking out in the U.S., but then when they come to China, they clam up,” says Bishop, the former media executive. “From a business perspective, that makes sense, but from a reputational perspective, that’s trouble.
“You have political systems that diverge, and the players are stuck in that divergence. Obviously they want to keep China’s money and the Chinese market, but they can’t do both and not look hypocritical.”
With the NBA regular season set to start Tuesday and no word yet on whether games will be streamed by Tencent or aired by CCTV, or whether any of the sponsors will return, the NBA’s status there is uncertain. There’s one school of thought that says basketball is simply too popular and important to China for the government to punish the league further. In the past couple of days, Tencent has returned to streaming at least two preseason games.
“Look, this is bad for the Chinese government right now,” says McGregor, the marketing expert who has written two books on doing business in China. “The NBA is nothing but good; it provides entertainment, keeps people busy, gives them something to talk and be passionate about, and if they’re doing all that, they’re not on the streets complaining about the government.”
At the same time, it’s unclear what, if anything, the league could or would do at this point if asked to mollify the Chinese.
Says Bishop, referencing the pingpong diplomacy that initiated a warming of relations between the countries back in the early 1970s: “One of the jokes going around is, U.S.-China engagement started with pingpong and ended with basketball.”
Producer William Weinbaum and researcher John Mastroberardino of ESPN’s Investigative and News Enterprise Unit contributed to this report.