Last Friday, a tweet by Daryl Morey, the general manager for the Houston Rockets, started a major controversy over free speech, China and the NBA. Morey tweeted in support of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, and China responded by blocking the broadcasts of Rockets games and canceling exhibition matches between a Chinese basketball club and the Rockets’ minor league team.
Daron Roberts is the founding director of the Center for Sports Leadership and Innovation at the University of Texas at Austin, and a former NFL coach. He says that Morey’s tweet put the NBA in a tough position – between maintaining its reputation as a politically progressive organization and profits.
“This could not come at a worse time or the target be a worse constituency. China is the No.1 expansion market for the NBA,” Roberts says.
While the NBA has been progressive compared to other professional sports leagues in the United States, it also has major business initiatives in China – a country whose political system limits freedom of speech, and more.
“It seems to be somewhat at odds to hold games in a country who has a long track record of human rights violations,” Roberts says. “It’s interesting to note that the NBA just signed a $1.5 billion broadcasting deal with the state broadcasting agency there in China.”
Although Roberts says he is unsure of how the NBA and China will resolve the dispute, he says he’s watching to see if the NBA chooses its reputation over its bottom line.
“[The NBA] is pitted against the NFL as the more progressive league, but again, this is a game of profit and margins, and so now we are going to have to find out to what extent the NBA will follow through and act on its principles,” Roberts says.
Morey’s tweet drew a large amount of attention, in part, because of the Rocket’s large Chinese fan base. And two former Rockets players, Yao Ming and Zhou Qi, are from China.
Written by Libby Cohen.