Daryl Morey, LeBron James, and the Unfolding of a Major NBA Controversy

A single tweet from Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey managed to start a major international controversy that has alienated the National Basketball Association (NBA) from almost all of China. On October 4, 2019, Morey tweeted an image that featured the caption “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong”, publicly announcing his support for Hong Kong protestors over mainland China. Soon after Morey’s public statement, the Chinese government called for the NBA to remove him from his position and publicly support the Chinese government’s rule.

With CNBC noting as recently as last November that the NBA has become the most popular sports league in China, the NBA was in a particularly difficult position. Many of the most popular current and former athletes in the NBA, including Stephen Curry, Joel Embiid, and Kobe Bryant, have been traveling across China for years to promote their partnerships with shoe companies. Other former NBA athletes such as Tracy McGrady and Stephen Marbury have found significant success through playing in China’s biggest basketball league, the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA), after their NBA careers came to a close. One of the biggest recent stars for the Shanghai Sharks organization, American player Jimmer Fredette, was able to use his positioning as a superstar in the CBA to briefly return to the NBA and later receive a major two-year contract with Greek organization Panathinaikos of the EuroLeague. The NBA even started a series known as the “China Games” in 2004, and as of 2018 they had organized 26 different preseason games for American teams to play in China in locations such as Beijing, Macau, and Taipei. Through this variety of partnerships, the NBA was able to promote its own international growth, the growth of the CBA, and the massive increase in popularity of American basketball apparel across China.

Given the NBA’s increased reliance on China as a flourishing market, some NBA figures did not receive Morey’s comment kindly. Within minutes of the publication of Morey’s tweet, Houston Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta heavily criticized his general manager, stating that Morey did “not speak for the Houston Rockets organization,” and pushed the idea that the Rockets would express no political viewpoints on the matter. The Rockets have historically been one of the most popular NBA teams in China, as former Rockets star center and Chinese native Yao Ming became a celebrity in the country after his dominant play in the U.S.. In addition, Ming currently serves as the president for the CBA, and much of his work is closely connected to the Chinese government.

Through Morey’s statement, not only did the Rockets risk losing their key connections to both their legions of Chinese fans and their relationship with their former star player, but also alienating many of their domestic fans. With many U.S. politicians attempting to pass the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act that would support the Hong Kong protestors’ goals, general support for the Hong Kong protestors in the United States has outweighed support of the Chinese government. While Fertitta’s declaration momentarily helped salvage relations between the Rockets and China, his comments also hurt domestic fan support.

In addition to Fertitta’s negative comments, Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James described Morey’s tweet as “misinformed or not really educated” on what was going on between Hong Kong and China. LeBron has increased his visits to China to advertise his shoe brands with Nike, and his comments on the matter directly contradicted his previous views as an advocate for free speech among athletes. Most non-Chinese writers and fans were heavily critical of LeBron’s comments, perceiving him to be valuing his business deals over his character.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, however, did not choose to follow suit with Fertitta and LeBron, and he publicly stated that the NBA would not be apologizing to China for Morey’s decision to speak out against Hong Kong soon after Fertitta’s comments. In addition, the NBA also promised not to fire Morey for his use of freedom of speech. Many other companies that have dealt with interactions with the Chinese government before have succumbed to pressure to change aspects of their business: Apple removed the Taiwanese flag emoji from all of its products’ keyboards, Hollywood movies have significantly censored films shown in China that have portrayed Chinese officials in a negative light, and Mercedes-Benz apologized after quoting the Dalai Lama in one of its advertising campaigns. However, the NBA did declare Morey’s comments to be “regrettable” in nature.

The Wall Street Journal noted that the NBA’s response attempted to satisfy both Hong Kong supporters and China’s mainland but ended up satisfying neither group sufficiently. In response to the NBA’s statement, China Central Televi- sion (CCTV) publicly stated that both Silver and the league would face severe retribution for their actions, and the Chinese government has already canceled multiple schedule NBA games in major Chinese cities. In addition, many basketball fans in the U.S. felt that the league did not support Morey and the Hong Kong protestors enough. The NBA found itself in a lose-lose situation, as they had to decide whether to prioritize their growing international relations or please their steady base of domestic fans. In addition, the league could not control the comments of many of their individual players, coaches, and owners, thus adding further barriers to the NBA cleanly resolving the problem.

However, while the NBA’s official response to the controversy did not fully back Morey, it did demonstrate the league’s willingness to protect the freedom of speech of its employees, which it must continue to value even at the risk of further loss of business expansion opportunities.