NBA backs free speech after Hong Kong tweet furor
TOKYO (AFP) — The NBA has insisted it backs free speech, after U.S. politicians accused it of caving to China in a row over a pro-democracy tweet that has cost the Houston Rockets lucrative Chinese sponsors and airtime.
The public relations crisis erupted on Friday when the Houston Rockets’ general manager posted a tweet backing protesters in the semi-autonomous southern Chinese city of Hong Kong who are demanding greater freedoms.
China, which allows no dissent on the sensitive issue, immediately sought to punish the Rockets, with state-run TV cutting its games and Chinese sponsors abandoning the team.
The NBA initially put out statements that senior U.S. politicians slammed as bowing to China for financial reasons, while Rockets star guard James Harden apologized.
But in his first public comments on the controversy, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver insisted his organization supported the right of Rockets general manager Daryl Morey to express his opinions.
“I think as a values-based organization that I want to make it clear … that Daryl Morey is supported in terms of his ability to exercise his freedom of expression,” Silver told Japan’s Kyodo News agency late Monday.
“There are the values that have been part of this league from its earliest days, and that includes free expression,” he added, speaking in Japan, where the Rockets and Toronto Raptors play several exhibition games this week.
Silver also addressed the financial impacts for the Rockets and the NBA in the Chinese market, its most lucrative outside of the United States.
“There is no doubt, the economic impact is already clear,” he said. “There have already been fairly dramatic consequences from that tweet.
NBA defends ‘free expression’
The NBA’s initial statement in English on the furore said it was “regrettable” that Morey’s views had “offended so many of our friends and fans in China”.
A Chinese-language version of the statement went further, saying the organization was “deeply disappointed by the inappropriate remarks”.
NBA spokesman Mike Bass sought to downplay the Chinese-language statement.
“We have seen various interpretations of the translation of the Mandarin version, but our statement in English is the league’s official statement,” he said.
But even the English-language version of the NBA’s statement was widely criticized in the United States, where presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke, a Texan, deemed it an “embarrassment.”