Beyond the Scoreboard: Daryl Morey-China Situation Forces NBA into Full-Court Trap

Over the weekend, the NBA found itself in perhaps its biggest conundrum to date. Its relations with China are now on thin ice after Daryl Morey’s recent tweet supporting Hong Kong. Now, the league is desperately balancing itself on the proverbial fence that sits between morality and financial growth.

No professional sports league in North America is more progressive than the National Basketball Association (NBA). For example, Silver and the NBA decided to move the 2017 All-Star Game out of Charlotte, N.C., due to its disapproval of the state’s House Bill 2, which limited anti-discrimination protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in the state. 

When the National Basketball Players Association called for the removal of former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling in 2014 for making offensive racist comments, Silver and the league listened. Sterling would ultimately be given an indefinite suspension from the NBA and still sits in exile today from the sport that earned him immense profit.

Enter general manager of the Houston Rockets, Daryl Morey. On Friday, Morey went on social media behind just six words. His tweet was quite simple: “fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong.”

Morey’s tweet was in reference to the escalating tensions between Hong Kong and China over an extradition bill that would have allowed some criminal suspects to be sent to mainland China for trial. However, civil rights protestors believe this bill is just another attempt by China to strengthen its influence further in Hong Kong. 

The former British colony was originally promised autonomy when it returned to Chinese rule in 1997. Yet, citizens of Hong Kong feel China’s true intentions are to push a anti-government movement. 

Since June, approximately 2,363 people have been arrested in connection with the ongoing protests. On Tuesday, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam warned that the Chinese military could step in if an uprising for democratic reforms continues on its current trajectory. In regards to Morey’s tweet, the reaction from China was immediate and filled with outrage.

The Chinese consulate in Houston described Morey’s tweet as an “erroneous comment.”

Houston Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta took little time to express his dissatisfaction with Morey, saying, “Listen…Daryl Morey does NOT speak for the Houston Rockets.” Fertitta made his stance abundantly clear by adding, “we are NOT a political organization.”

Even Rockets superstar guard and former MVP James Harden came out and apologized for Morey’s tweet. Harden said in a press conference, “We apologize. You know, we love China. They show us the most important love.”

Morey would eventually come back on Twitter to issue his own apology, saying, “I did not intend my tweet to cause any offense to Rockets fans and friends of mine in China… I have had a lot of opportunities since that tweet to hear and consider other perspectives.”

Essentially, Morey is apologizing for supporting the growth of democracy in a country that is governed through the Communist party. Here on U.S. soil, many would probably stand on the side of Morey. Our country was founded on the development and infrastructure given by the democratic system. Unfortunately, our country was also founded by dollars. Millions and millions of dollars.

According to Sports Illustrated, the league signed a new five-year with Tencent, the NBA digital rights holder in China, worth reportedly half a billion dollars. Now, Tencent announced anything related to Morey, which includes Rockets game coverage, will be suspended. For the franchise, this is a devastating blow considering how popular the team is over there.

Since drafting Chinese-born Yao Ming with the number 1 overall pick in 2002, the Rockets popularity exploded, making them comparable to the Dallas Cowboys and New York Yankees in China. Ming, now head of the Chinese Basketball Association, was reportedly furious with Morey’s comments and Silver plans to meet with Ming before Thursday’s exhibition between the Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets.

Silver is doing everything in his power to please both sides involved. He is saving face by apologizing profusely for Morey, saying he hopes the NBA can be used as a “unifying force to bridge cultural divides and bring people together.” Yet, Silver also reiterated that the NBA will not “put itself in a position of regulating what players, employees and team owners say or will not say on these issues.”

Silver clearly understands that the financial benefits of the leagues partnership with China is much too crucial for the NBA to outright support Morey, considering he is not necessarily wrong in his view. But Silver can not co-sign that. What he also will not do is begin controlling what comes out of the mouth of his employees, especially on political matters. The NBA prides itself on hearing out its players when they speak up on important social matters.

Unfortunately, this situation won’t be resolved anytime soon. Before that Lakers-Nets exhibition, reporters will be rushing to ask the face of the league, LeBron James, his take on the entire matter. What if he shows support for Morey’s freedom of speech? More so, what if LeBron ends up saying he stands with the people of Hong Kong in their pursuit of democracy?

Inversely, there are arguments to be made against saying anything at all. A majority of NBA players have shoe deals and sponsorships in China. Will they step up and give their opinions on this matter if they receive the same backlash as Morey? Remember: they have much more to lose financially than does Morey, who may end up without a job as this entire ordeal progresses.

Rest assured, Silver and the NBA has a lot of work ahead of themselves to keep China happy and to assure that no one else makes a detrimental comment about the situation without compromising their free speech. For now, the fence between morality and financial growth is sturdy enough to sit on.

I do not believe Daryl Morey is wrong in his words. His support is genuine. The problem is that his words go against everything his employer stands for when it comes to their current financial relations with China. Is partnering with a communist country in order to make money on a game morally right? Probably not. 

But, morals and ethical conduct did not help build the NBA as a global brand. Money was the foundation and will continue to be as it pertains to the NBA’s success. Thus, the NBA will continue prioritizing money over morals on and off the court.