The NBA superstar LeBron James has routinely insulted President Donald Trump. Two of the league’s most successful coaches, Steve Kerr and Gregg Popovich, have repeatedly slammed U.S. lawmakers for inaction on gun legislation. And other basketball stars regularly speak out on social and political issues — police shootings, elections and racism — without fear of retribution from the league.
But this weekend, a Houston Rockets executive unwittingly exposed an issue that may have been too much for the National Basketball Association: support for protesters in Hong Kong, which infuriated China.
“Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong,” Daryl Morey, the Houston Rockets general manager, said in a post on Twitter that included an image of protests. It was quickly deleted.
But the damage was done, and the NBA quickly moved to smooth things over in a lucrative market that generates millions of dollars in revenue. The league said it was “regrettable” that many Chinese fans were offended by the comment.
Sponsors in China paused their deals with the Rockets, and the country’s main broadcaster said it would remove the team’s games from its schedule. Two exhibition games scheduled for a low-level team affiliated with the Rockets were also canceled.
The issue is familiar to Hollywood studios, major companies and individual athletes chasing business in a country with 1.4 billion people, and the NBA’s reaction reflects a corporate sensitivity toward China’s low tolerance for criticism of its political system.
The league’s statement, in turn, inflamed supporters of the Hong Kong protests and many fans in the United States, where the protesters are generally seen as battling a repressive government. Democratic and Republican politicians found agreement in calling the league gutless, accusing it of prioritizing money over human rights.
Morey’s original tweet, which he later apologized for in a two-part post, was defended by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who disagreed with the league’s decision to back away from the comments.
Speaking before a scheduled preseason game between the Rockets and Toronto Raptors in Japan, the NBA’s commissioner, Adam Silver, acknowledged the fallout but said the league supported Morey’s right to free expression.
“There is no doubt, the economic impact is already clear,” Silver told Kyodo News. “There have already been fairly dramatic consequences from that tweet, and I have read some of the media suggesting that we are not supporting Daryl Morey, but in fact we have.”
James and the Los Angeles Lakers play two games in China this week against the Brooklyn Nets, a team owned by Joseph Tsai, the billionaire co-founder of the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba.
Tsai, the first Chinese owner of an NBA franchise, said in a statement late Sunday that Hong Kong was a “third-rail issue” in China, calling the efforts by protesters a “separatist movement.” (Most protesters deny they are interested in independence, but the Chinese state media has at times depicted them that way.)
Tilman Fertitta, the owner of the Houston Rockets and Morey’s boss, publicly rebuked Morey but said later that the general manager’s job was not in danger.
The NBA is far from the first company to find itself forced to choose sides on geopolitical issues it never intended to be involved in, and to ultimately bow to China’s economic might.
China is an attractive — and necessary — lure for nearly all global institutions, with an economy that while slowing, continues to grow at a pace that is the envy of many countries. Any threat to an ability to do business in China would have dire financial consequences for many multinational corporations.
As a result, many companies have apologized or made concessions after angering China. In many cases, the companies found themselves scrambling to respond to comments or Twitter posts made by executives or other employees that generate unwanted attention on social networks.
The stakes are particularly high for the NBA in China.
Tencent Holdings, a Chinese tech conglomerate, reported that 490 million people watched NBA programming on its platforms last year, including 21 million fans who watched Game 6 of the 2019 NBA Finals. By comparison, Nielsen measured 18.3 million viewers for the game on the American network ABC.
The league recently announced a five-year extension of its partnership with Tencent to stream its games in China for a reported $1.5 billion.
“This is a massive indicator for the perceived value and enormous potential of the China market,” Mailman, a sports digital marketing agency, wrote in a recent report.
The NBA has been similarly successful on Chinese social media. The league has 41.8 million followers on Weibo, a popular Chinese social network, compared with 38.6 million followers on Facebook and 28.4 million on Twitter.
The involvement of the Rockets is particularly troublesome for the NBA, given the franchise’s longtime status as among the most popular team in China. Yao Ming, considered the crown jewel of Chinese basketball, played for the Rockets from 2002-11.
Yao is now the president of the Chinese Basketball Association, which suspended its relationship with the Rockets. It also canceled two NBA G League games scheduled for this month between affiliates of the Rockets and the Dallas Mavericks, said a person with knowledge of the decision who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.
Houston was the second-most-popular team in China behind the Golden State Warriors last year, according to Mailman. The team had 7.3 million followers on Weibo, compared with 2.9 million followers on Twitter.
James Harden, a Rockets guard and one of the NBA’s biggest stars, directly apologized to Chinese fans on Monday.
“We apologize. We love China, we love playing there,” he told reporters in Tokyo, where the Rockets were preparing for their preseason game.
“We go there once or twice a year. They show us the most support and love. We appreciate them as a fan base, and we love everything they’re about, and we appreciate the support that they give us,” said Harden, who three years ago spoke out about the shootings of two black men by police.