The Houston Rockets and the NBA found themselves caught in a firestorm of controversy over a tweet about the protests in Hong Kong, extending to the sports world the list of targets vulnerable to China’s political sensitivities.
In a tweet late Friday, General Manager Daryl Morey appeared to support Hong Kong demonstrators, with the message containing an image that read “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.” The message was deleted, and Morey later tweeted that he did not mean to cause offense. The National Basketball Association issued its own apology.
But the damage was done. Chinese sportswear maker Li Ning Co. and Shanghai Pudong Development Bank Credit Card Center suspended cooperation with the Rockets, while CCTV Sports said it will halt broadcasting the team’s games. The controversy set off a wave of comments on both sides of the dispute, from Republican Senator Ted Cruz to Chinese media and Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. co-founder Joe Tsai.
The episode is the latest to highlight the risks for international businesses caught up in the standoff between pro-democracy demonstrators and Hong Kong authorities that has escalated since June. From Starbucks Corp. to Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd., brands and companies are being targeted if they’re seen to be supporting either side in the dispute.
It also drags the world of sports into the controversy, setting up emotional reactions in both China and the U.S. The issue is particularly sensitive for the Rockets, who have worked hard to establish a loyal fan base in China.
The Rockets have more ties to China than most NBA teams. Yao Ming, arguably the greatest Chinese basketball player of all time who now leads the Chinese Basketball Association, starred for the Rockets for many years and was the first Chinese player inducted into the NBA’s Hall of Fame.
The team’s owner, Tilman Fertitta, said the Rockets aren’t a political organization and Morey didn’t speak for the team, which is in Tokyo this week to play preseason games. The NBA tried to limit the damage in a statement, saying Morey’s comments were “regrettable.”
“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,” the NBA said.
That comment in turn sparked protests from U.S. politicians.
Cruz, a Texas senator and longtime Rockets fan, tweeted that the NBA “is shamefully retreating” and said he was “proud” to see Morey’s original comment. Both Democratic presidential candidates from Texas also blasted the NBA, with Beto O’Rourke calling the apology “an embarrassment” and Julian Castro saying the U.S. can’t allow American citizens “to be bullied by an authoritarian government.”
Tony Fratto, former White House deputy press secretary under George W. Bush and founder of Hamilton Place Strategies in Washington, tweeted that the NBA “crossed the line to stand with China and against American values.”
The NBA’s statement shows the cautious approach companies and organizations have been taking in an effort not to offend China, which has become a main driver of growth for many multinationals.
It’s a sharp reversal for a league that has previously supported outspoken stances on social and political issues, including encouraging protests related to police issues and tolerating sharp criticism of President Donald Trump.
On the other side of the debate, state-run China Daily commented that foreign organizations need to be “courteous to China if you want to earn money here.”
“Let’s hope the incident with Morey and the Houston Rockets will teach other companies a lesson,” it wrote. “The big Chinese market is open to the world, but those who challenge China’s core interests and hurt Chinese people’s feelings cannot make any profit from it.”
Stepping in to try to bridge the gap was Alibaba’s Tsai, who this summer became the owner of the Brooklyn Nets. In an open letter on Facebook, Tsai attempted to explain China’s anger to Western audiences.
Tsai called the Hong Kong protests a separatist movement, saying support for such movements is a “third-rail” issue in China as its citizens stand united when it comes to the nation’s territorial integrity.
“I don’t know Daryl personally,” Tsai wrote of Morey. “I will take at face value his subsequent apology that he was not as well informed as he should have been. But the hurt that this incident has caused will take a long time to repair.”
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