Consistently praised as the most progressive sports league, the NBA finds itself in hot water with China following outcry after a tumultuous tweet. 

The Tweet That Caused it All

Houston Rockets General Manager, Daryl Morey, knocked over the first domino in a line to come when he fired off a tweet about the protest in Hong Kong two weeks ago. The since-deleted Tweet featured an image that read “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong.” 

Strained with months of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, China has been dealing with calls for its Communist Party to “return power to the people.” As the protests have escalated from a push back against a Chinese extradition bill to a call for pro-democracy in Hong Kong, China has found itself in the international hot seat. 

On October 13th the Chinese Basketball Association announced that it would suspend all further cooperation with the Rockets. From CCTV 5 suspending the broadcasts of future Rockets games due to pressure from China’s consulate general, the country made it clear that they would not rest until the NBA renounced Morey’s statement. 

The NBA’s Response

The league initially responded by trying to distance themselves from Murry’s comments but also respecting his right to free speech. Criticized by many US Politicians on both sides of the isle, the NBA was slammed by many in the US for comprising its values and by others in China for attacking the nation.

This negative reaction prompted NBA Commissioner Adam Silver to hold a press conference on Tuesday. “The NBA will not put itself in a position of regulating what players, employees and team owners say or will not say,” Silver said in the statement. “We simply could not operate that way.”

He specified that the NBA is not in the business of censoring players and team executives who express their views about human rights. “It is inevitable that people around the world — including from America and China — will have different viewpoints over different issues,” he said in the statement. “It is not the role of the NBA to adjudicate those differences.”

While it eased tensions in the US, Silver’s response sparked controversy throughout China.

11 Major Chinese Partners Distance Themselves from the NBA

In light of the league response, Chinese corporations have extended their crusade from the Rockets franchise to the entire NBA. 

Eleven out of 13 major Chinese partners have suspended or pulled support for the league in response to how the league handled the situation. The Chinese Basketball Association announced it would suspend all cooperation with the NBA. Chinese celebrities have refused to show up for press gatherings, and all across social media there are calls for Chinese citizens to boycott the NBA. 

With millions of NBA fans in China and millions of dollars in contracts with Chinese companies, the fate of the league’s success in China is uncertain.  

What’s Next?

The NBA has spent lots of time and money in an effort to bring the love of the league to China. From building basketball courts to hosting expedition games with some of its greatest players, the league has left a large footprint overseas. 

With the US in the middle of trade talks with China, President Donald Trump even responded to the controversy by accusing the league and other coaches of “pandering to China” after they spoke out about the tweet. 

Developing from a dispute between the NBA and China to a much larger global political debate, only time will tell how this situation will resolve itself.

Response in Recent Days

Upon his return from China, Basketball great Lebron James took to the press to express his views on the Murray’s tweet. “I just think that when you’re misinformed, or you’re not educated about something — and I’m just talking about the tweet itself — you never know the ramifications that can happen. We all see what that did — not only for our league but for all of us in America, for people in China as well,” he told reporters earlier this week.

Hong Kong protestors have slammed James for his comments. At the end of the day, theystar had a choice to make, defend the league or defend his brand; and he chose himself.

Athletes have to appease many fans who look to them not only for their success on the court but also for what they represent and the issues they speak out on. In the past, James has lived up to his message of being “more than just an athlete”, by speaking out on issues like the Black Lives Matter movement and building a school to better the educational opportunity for children in his hometown neighborhood. 

However, this recent response shows just how important an athlete’s brand is to their ability to speak freely about issues. In the end, the athletes protect their brand and their ability to play, even if that means comprising their own values.  

Predicting where the NBA will go from here is difficult. Basketball is still the third most popular sport in the US, raking in a total of 8.1 billion dollars last season.

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