The National Basketball Association sided with China after a team executive expressed support for pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.
Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey on Friday tweeted an image reading "Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong," a show of solidarity with the hundreds of thousands of pro-democracy activists who have been demonstrating against oppression in the city.
The now-deleted tweet angered the communist regime, which demanded a retraction. Several Chinese businesses suspended partnerships with the team, which has enjoyed a large Chinese fanbase since drafting Yao Ming in 2002.
Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta quickly distanced the team from Morey's comments on Twitter.
Listen....@dmorey does NOT speak for the @HoustonRockets. Our presence in Tokyo is all about the promotion of the @NBA internationally and we are NOT a political organization. @espn https://t.co/yNyQFtwTTi
— Tilman Fertitta (@TilmanJFertitta) October 5, 2019
Following Fertitta's tweet, Morey posted a thread that did not apologize for supporting the protesters but did clarify that he was not speaking on behalf of the team. The Ringer reported that Morey's tweet came as Rockets' ownership seriously considered firing and replacing him over the incident.
"We apologize. We love China," Rockets player James Harden likewise said Monday, flanked by fellow star Russell Westbrook.
The NBA issued a statement reading:
We recognize that the views expressed by Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey have deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China, which is regrettable. While Daryl has made it clear that his tweet does not represent the Rockets or the NBA, the values of the league support individuals’ educating themselves and sharing their views on matters important to them. We have great respect for the history and culture of China and hope that sports and the NBA can be used as a unifying force to bridge cultural divides and bring people together.
The Mandarin translation of the statement sent out from the NBA's Chinese Twitter account was even more forceful, saying they were "extremely disappointed in the inappropriate comment." NBA spokesman Mike Bass responded Monday that "there should be no discrepancy" and "our statement in English is the league's official statement."
Brooklyn Nets owner Joe Tsai issued his own statement on Facebook defending the Chinese response and terming the Hong Kong protesters a "separatist movement."
"The NBA is a fan-first league," Tsai wrote. "When hundreds of millions of fans are furious over an issue, the league, and anyone associated with the NBA, will have to pay attention. As a Governor of one of the 30 NBA teams, and a Chinese having spent a good part of my professional life in China, I need to speak up."
The larger NBA response received widespread, bipartisan backlash. "As a lifelong [Rockets] fan, I was proud to see [Morey] call out the Chinese Communist Party’s repressive treatment of protestors in Hong Kong," tweeted Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas). "Now, in pursuit of big $$, the NBA is shamefully retreating."
"This is a mistake that they should fix quickly," Sen. Brian Schatz (D., Hawaii) tweeted while linking to the NBA statement.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver argued Monday that the NBA has supported Morey's "freedom of expression," but he did not criticize China's actions.
"I think as a values-based organization that I want to make it clear ... that Daryl Morey is supported in terms of his ability to exercise his freedom of expression," Silver told Kyodo News.