A couple of weeks before the start of the 2019-20 NBA regular season, the league finds itself involved in a controversy with China stemming from a now-deleted tweet from Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey. In the tweet, Morey gave a message of support to protesters in Hong Kong who are currently involved in demonstrations that began in opposition to controversial proposed legislation.
Morey's tweet was met with considerable backlash from Chinese authorities, while several different parties, including NBA commissioner Adam Silver, have weighed in on the issue. The latest to to the conversation is none other than LeBron James. The timeline of events has been lengthy. Below is a rundown of how we got from Morey's tweet to the current situation between China and the NBA along with the latest on this constantly evolving situation.
How did this all start?
On Oct. 4, Morey tweeted (and later deleted) support for the ongoing protests in Hong Kong which began in opposition of controversial legislation that would allow criminal suspects to be extradited to mainland China. The protests have since expanded. The tweet read: "Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong." Morey's tweet showing direct support for Hong Kong was viewed by some as criticism and/or opposition to China's political strategy and was not received well by Chinese officials.
The Hong Kong protests initially opposed government legislation that would allow people to be extradited to mainland China to face charges. They are now generally pro-democracy protests that expand far beyond the removal of the legislation. CBS News has you covered with the latest news on all things related to the Hong Kong protests, including what the protesters want from China beyond the removal of the legislation. The protests are in their fifth month.
What backlash have the NBA and Rockets faced?
The backlash to Morey's tweet was felt immediately by the Rockets and the league. The Chinese consulate in Houston released a statement expressing its "strong dissatisfaction" with Morey's tweet, stating that "anybody with conscience would support the efforts made by the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region to safeguard Hong Kong's social stability." Also, sponsors began to cut ties with the Rockets and the league as a whole:
- The Rockets could potentially lose $25 million in sponsorship boycotts due to Morey's tweet, as reported by Marc Stein of The New York Times on Saturday.
- Members of the United States Congress penned an open letter to Silver on Oct. 9, calling for the league to suspend all relationships with China until "government-controlled broadcasters and government-controlled commercial sponsors end their boycott of the NBA activities and the selective treatment of the Houston Rockets."
- An NBA Cares event with Nets players in Shanghai was also canceled on Tuesday by the Chinese board of education.
- Sportswear brand Anta, which works with players like Klay Thompson and Gordon Hayward, announced it would suspend contract renewal talks with the NBA, according to Reuters.
- Per Keith Smith of Yahoo Sports, several NBA teams are planning "for a scenario in which the cap for the 2020-21 season could drop between 10 and 15 percent due to the current situation between the NBA and China."
- The Lakers-Nets exhibition game in Shanghai took place Thursday, however it was played without sponsors, and media sessions for both teams were canceled, as reported by Rachel Nichols of ESPN.
- The Chinese Basketball Association has canceled planned exhibition games with the NBA G League affiliates of both the Rockets and Mavericks later this month in China, according to Shams Charania of The Athletic.
- Tencent, the NBA's exclusive digital partner in China, announced it will suspend business relations with the Rockets. The company is offering fans who bought a team-pass to watch the Rockets this season a chance to choose a different team.
- Sportswear brand Li-Ning, which sponsors a handful of NBA players, announced that it would suspend business ties with the league.
- Chinese state television CCTV said it would no longer air the Rockets' preseason games in China.
- Silver said that the Chinese government , but Silver refused to even consider it.
- Silver said that the league has already , and they could continue into the season.
CCTV also made a statement strongly disagreeing with the league's stance on Morey's comments:
We've noted that Adam Silver, the commissioner of the NBA who has been attending events in Japan, has responded to the inappropriate comment on Hong Kong made by the general manager of the Houston Rockets, Daryl Morey. We voice our strong dissatisfaction and opposition to Adam Silver offering as an excuse the right to freedom of expression. We believe that no comments challenging national sovereignty and social stability fall within the scope of freedom of expressions. In light of this, China Media Group sports channel has decided to immediately suspend the current plans to relay broadcast the NBA pre-season (China games) and will immediately undertake a full check of all cooperative exchanges involving the NBA.
How did the NBA respond?
Two days after Morey's tweet, the league released an official statement on the matter.
We recognize that the views expressed by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey have deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China, which is regrettable. While Daryl has made it clear that his tweet does not represent the Rockets or the NBA, the values of the league support individuals' educating themselves and sharing their views on matters important to them. 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.
With all the backlash, Silver spoke with Toyko-based news corporation Kyodo News about the reception of the league's initial statement. "There is no doubt, the economic impact is already clear," Silver said. "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."
Silver's comments created a new level of backlash for the NBA, this time from American fans and government officials. By not making it clear that Morey's freedom of speech will not be impeded by the league, the statement instead came across like the NBA was denouncing Morey's stance. It also didn't help that the statement the league released in China had a substantially different tone.
The Chinese version of the league's statement, which was shared on Weibo -- a Chinese social media platform similar to Twitter -- said the league was "extremely disappointed" by the "inappropriate" comment made by Morey. The statement ends by saying that Morey's comments "severely hurt the feelings of Chinese fans."
After the initial statement was met with backlash, Silver spoke out a little more in-depth to clarify the league's stance. The full statement can be read here, but here is a key excerpt:
"It is inevitable that people around the world -- including from America and China -- will have different viewpoints over different issues. It is not the role of the NBA to to adjudicate those differences. However, 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. We simply could not operate that way."
Despite all of the turmoil, Silver still attended the Lakers and Nets game in China on Thursday, however his scheduled press conference prior to the game was canceled. During a news conference in Tokyo, Silver said: "I understand that there are consequences from that exercise of, in essence, [Morey's] freedom of speech, and we will have to live with those consequences." Silver went so far as to say the league isn't apologizing for Morey's freedom of expression, but instead "regret that so many people are upset."
Silver's plan is to try to meet with Yao Ming, a chairman of the Chinese Basketball Association, when he gets to Shanghai to attempt and repair the large rift that has been created from Morey's tweet, and the league's response. "I'm hoping together that Yao Ming and I can find accommodation," Silver said. "But he is extremely hot at the moment, and I understand it. There's no question that Daryl's tweet has hit what I would describe as a third-rail issue in China. I think Yao is extremely unsettled. I'm not quite sure he accepts how we are operating our business right now."
How did the Rockets respond?
Houston's team owner Tilman Fertitta sent a tweet acknowledging that Morey's opinions do not reflect the views of the Houston Rockets.
Morey then released the following apology on Twitter for his remarks, but .
I did not intend my tweet to cause any offense to Rockets fans and friends of mine in China. I was merely voicing one thought, based on one interpretation, of one complicated event. I have had a lot of opportunity since that tweet to hear and consider other perspectives.
I have always appreciated the significant support our Chinese fans and sponsors have provided and I would hope that those who are upset will know that offending or misunderstanding them was not my intention. My tweets are my own and in no way represent the Rockets or the NBA.
Even Rockets star James Harden for Morey's remarks. While speaking to media with teammate Russell Westbrook, Harden expressed his deep appreciation for all their fans in China: "We apologize, we love China, we love playing here," he said. "For both of us individually, we go there once or twice a year and they show us the most support and love. We appreciate them as a fanbase, and we love everything they're about. We appreciate the support they give us individually, and as an organization."
Why are the Rockets so popular in China?
The Rockets have been the most popular team in China for years, dating back to the day when Yao was drafted by the team with the No. 1 overall pick in 2002. The Hall of Famer spent his entire NBA career in Houston and became an unofficial global ambassador for the league. His popularity in China helped the NBA grow its league on a global scale like never before, and the Rockets became China's adopted hometown team.
Over the years, the Rockets have shown deep appreciation for their Chinese fans and even went so far as designing their City Edition jersey to honor their international fan base in 2018. Since Morey's tweet, though, the relationship between China and the Rockets has been severely damaged, if not severed.
China has been a significant area of growth for the NBA over the past decade with many of the league's international efforts focused on the world's most populated country.
What are NBA players saying?
There have been responses from several prominent NBA players. Most are supporting the right for members of the league to voice their opinions while also showing confidence that Silver will work with China toward a solution. LeBron James, however, took a slightly different stance by criticizing Morey for not thinking about the potential ramifications of his tweet.
Lakers forward LeBron James: "I think that's another situation that should stay behind closed doors. I think when we all sit back and learn from the situation that happened, understand that what you could tweet or could say... We all talk about this freedom of speech. Yes, we all do have freedom of speech, but at times there are ramifications for the negative that can happen when you're not thinking about others, and you're only thinking about yourself. I don't want to get into a word or sentence feud with Daryl Morey, but I believe he wasn't educated on the situation at hand, and he spoke. And so many people could have been harmed, not only financially, but physically, emotionally, spiritually. So just be careful what we tweet and what we say, and what we do. Even though yes, we do have freedom of speech, but there can be a lot of negative that comes with that too."
Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo: "I feel like in the NBA they always allow us to express our feelings. Players come out, GMs come out and express their feelings. At the end of the day, the NBA wants to have a great relationship with China and with the fans. I know this situation, they're going to solve it in a way. But what can you do? Like, I feel like the NBA gives you a great platform to express your feelings and say what you believe and what you think about situations in the world. But I know that they're going to find a way to solve this situation. It was just a misunderstanding."
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich: "[Silver] came out strongly for freedom of speech. I felt great again. He's been a heck of a leader in that respect and very courageous."