An Uncomfortable Wrinkle in NBA's China Controversy

Former Rockets star Yao Ming is now a China basketball exec; flap involves old team
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Oct 8, 2019 10:05 AM CDT
An Uncomfortable Wrinkle in NBA's China Controversy
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver speaks at a news conference before an NBA preseason basketball game between the Houston Rockets and the Toronto Raptors on Tuesday in Saitama, near Tokyo.   (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

A tweet has caused a major rift between the NBA and China, and the league is now fending off criticism that its initial response to the controversy was too accommodating to Beijing. Meanwhile, a familiar name has become embroiled in the mess. Here's the latest:

  • What happened: This began when Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey posted a since-deleted tweet supporting Hong Kong protesters. It angered China, prompting Morey, team owner Tilman Fertitta, and the league itself to try to mitigate the damage. (Here is Morey's effort.) An initial NBA statement said the tweet "deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China, which is regrettable."
  • Yao Ming: Basketball is a huge and growing business in China, and the biggest name there is retired NBA great Yao Ming, who played for years with, of all teams, the Rockets. But Yao is now the head of the Chinese Basketball Association, which has suspended ties with the Rockets because of Morey's tweet, reports the AP. Yao hasn't shared his personal feelings about the controversy, notes CBS News. "I'm hoping that together Yao Ming and I can find an accommodation," says NBA chief Adam Silver. "But he is extremely hot at the moment, and I understand it."

  • No apologies: The NBA's Silver is now explicitly defending the right of any NBA player or staffer to express their views. "We are not apologizing for Daryl exercising his freedom of expression," Silver said Tuesday. "I regret—again, having communicated directly with many friends in China—that so many people are upset, including millions and millions of our fans." Silver will be in Shanghai Wednesday for a scheduled game between the Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets, and he hopes to try to smooth things over with his Chinese colleagues.
  • Consequences: China's state-run CCTV has suspended the broadcast of all NBA games, reports Business Insider. "Any speech challenging a country's national sovereignty and social stability is not within the scope of freedom of speech," says the network of Morey's tweet. Smartphone maker Vivo and internet firm Tencent also are suspending ties, reports TechCrunch.
  • LeBron? At USA Today, Josh Peter writes that LeBron James, who arrives in China this week for the Lakers game, must speak out strongly in defense of free speech and of free and open societies. It could be dicey for him given his ties to Nike, and Nike's ties to China. But "anything less will leave LeBron looking like a sellout."
  • Different wording: When a Chinese version of the league's initial statement appeared, it called Morey's comments "inappropriate." But the English version didn't go that far, and a league spokesman said there were "various interpretations" of the statement in play, per the Wall Street Journal. In a follow-up clarification, the league said that it "is inevitable that people around the world—including from America and China—will have different viewpoints over different issues" but that "the NBA will not put itself in a position of regulating what players, employees, and team owners say or will not say on these issues."
(China isn't happy with South Park, either.)

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