NBA commissioner Adam Silver told reporters this week that China’s response to former Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey expressing his support for anti-government Hong Kong protesters in 2019 cost the league hundreds of millions of dollars.
Morey, who is now general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers, tweeted in October 2019 an image that read, “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.” Morey would later delete the tweet and explain that he did not intend to offend Rockets fans or his friends in China. Demonstrators were protesting against China’s control of Hong Kong at the time.
China first pulled games from CCTV shortly after Morey’s comments, but the NBA returned to Chinese televisions in March. Silver said the NBA lost “hundreds of millions” of dollars because of the 18-month blackout, but he also highlighted the league’s commitment to free speech for players, coaches and executives.
“Others since then have spoken out about their views around China and other places in the world, and if the consequences are that we’re taken off the air or we lose money, we accept that,” Silver told reporters at a news conference Thursday, according to Reuters.
The NBA initially said Morey’s remarks were “regrettable” and that he had “deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China.” The league would later issue another statement affirming its commitment to free speech.
Silver also pushed back Thursday on criticisms from U.S. lawmakers about the NBA’s business relationship with China, noting that the league is just one of many companies to work with the Chinese.
“From a policy standpoint, virtually every Fortune 100 company is doing business in China,” Silver said. “We have an enormous, humongous trade relationship with China. Virtually all the phones in this room, the clothes you are wearing, the shoes you are wearing, are made in China. From a larger societal standpoint, this is something where we have to look to the U.S. government for direction.”
“And if people are suggesting now that we should no longer have trade relations with China, and I don’t think they are, that’s a huge global issue where we will follow the lead from our government,” he continued.
NBA free agent Enes Kanter Freedom has been an outspoken critic of China over its human rights abuses and has repeatedly called out Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James and other athletes over business relationships with the country.
Chinese video-streaming site Tencent pulled the Boston Celtics’ season opener after Freedom, who was a member of the team at the time, sported shoes slamming China’s treatment of Tibet.
But some NBA executives have taken a different approach, minimizing the severity of China’s abuses.
Golden State Warriors part-owner Chamath Palihapitiya said in January that “nobody cares” about China’s concentration camps and forced labor of the Uyghur population.
“Nobody cares about what’s happening to the Uyghurs, okay,” Palihapitiya said on the “All-In” podcast at the time. “You bring it up because you care and I think it’s nice that you care. The rest of us don’t care. I’m just telling you a very hard, ugly truth. Of all the things that I care about, yes, it is below my line.”
He would later walk back his comments on Twitter, saying he believes “human rights matter, whether in China, the United States, or elsewhere.”
And Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said in October 2020 that he is “against human rights violations around the world,” but that he is okay with doing business with China” because “we have to pick our battles.”
“I personally put a priority on domestic issues. I’m against human rights violations around the world,” Cuban said on a podcast at the time.
Silver celebrated the NBA’s return to Chinese broadcasts and claimed that the league’s partnership with China is not inconsistent with its beliefs.
“I think engagement is positive, particularly through sports,” Silver said at the news conference. “Using sports as a platform to keep people around the world talking is critically important. At the same time, I don’t think it’s inconsistent with our values for our game to be broadcast in China and 200-plus other countries in the world.”