COMMENTARY: Rockets general manager suppresses freedom of speech during recent controversy with China


Courtesy of Creative Commons

Houston Rockets All-Star James Harden apologizes for the team’s recent controversy with China.

Dissent against the government isn’t tolerated in China, even if it proceeds from the general manager of the most popular NBA franchise among Chinese citizens. On Oct. 4, general manager of the Houston Rockets Daryl Morey tweeted, “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong,” backing the pro-democracy movement in the city. 

Morey quickly deleted the tweet after it upset Chinese sponsors, China Central Television , China’s state broadcaster, and the Chinese Basketball Association led by former Rockets center Yao Ming. The drift between China and the NBA highlights a new challenge for corporate America: China’s way or the highway. 

Tilman Fertitta, the owner of the Rockets, publicly voiced his disapproval of Morey’s actions on Twitter, “Listen @dmorey does NOT speak for the @Houston Rockets, and we are NOT a political organization.” Fertitta later added that Morey’s job is not in jeopardy after Morey apologized in a two-part tweet.

On Oct. 8, CCTV announced that it would not televise two preseason games between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Brooklyn Nets, a team owned by Joe Tsai, co-founder of Chinese e-commerce Alibaba. Both teams played in Shanghai and Shenzhen this weekend. A school outreach event scheduled for the Nets in Shanghai was canceled.

The “wokest professional sports league,” as nicknamed by New York Times’ national editor, allows its players to exercise their First Amendment right without imposing hefty fines. In 2014, LeBron James wore a shirt during his pregame warmups that read, “I Can’t Breathe” in solidarity with Eric Garner, an African-American male who died in July of that same year after a confrontation with a New York Police Department officer.

Freedom of speech carries consequences. CCTV released the following statement amid the confrontation between China and the NBA: “We voice our strong dissatisfaction and opposition to Adam Silver. We believe that no comments challenging national sovereignty fall within the scope of freedom of expression.” 

So why is the NBA worried? The league has strong economic ties in China. League officials recently announced a five-year extension reportedly worth $1.5 billion with Tencent, a Chinese tech conglomerate, to stream games in China. Tencent reported that 490 million people watched NBA games last year- including 21 million for Game 6 of the finals – surpassing the United States by 3 million viewers. The league also has a strong Chinese following on social media- 38.6 million followers on Facebook and 28.4 million on Twitter. 

James Harden’s comments echo the NBA’s effort to protect its interests in China. “We apologize. We love China. We appreciate them as a fan base, and we love everything they’re about.”

Silver, the NBA commissioner, is in a very deep predicament. Should he favor China, perhaps the league’s biggest partner, he risks heavy criticism from Americans and a steep decrease in the domestic audience. Not to mention, his hands may be forced to limit league employees’ freedom of speech. 

Should he side with the U.S. and their never-ending battle to defend and promote capitalism and democracy, he risks losing billions of dollars in revenue and breaking a lucrative economic relationship with the world’s most populated country.