N.B.A. Commissioner Commits to Free Speech as Chinese Companies Cut Ties


The N.B.A.’s decades-long push to develop China into its biggest overseas market appeared increasingly in jeopardy on Tuesday as the league’s commissioner stood firm in the face of criticism from Beijing and the Chinese threatened financial repercussions.

China’s state-run television announced it would not broadcast two N.B.A. preseason games scheduled for this week in Shanghai and Shenzhen that will feature basketball’s biggest star, LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers. Hours later, the league’s commissioner, Adam Silver, issued his most emphatic defense of the right of its employees to speak out on political issues, after days of criticism saying that the N.B.A. was caving to one of its most important business partners, which has a history of cracking down on dissent.

“We will protect our employees’ freedom of speech,” Silver said during a news conference in Japan.

The N.B.A. has made global expansion — particularly into China — a core part of its mission. The preseason games are part of a set of events designed to promote the league in the country — including basketball clinics, fan gatherings and various public appearances by players.

But the league’s trip was upended by a single tweet from a Houston Rockets executive who on Friday night posted a supportive message about protests in Hong Kong. Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Rockets, shared an image that included the words “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong,” a reference to the pro-democracy protests that have raged for months. The phrase is a slogan of the protests and has been chanted at demonstrations.

“I think it’s unfortunate,” Silver said. “But if that’s the consequences of us adhering to our values, we still feel it’s critically important we adhere to those values.”

Many American politicians, both Democrats and Republicans, castigated the league for its initial reaction to the situation: a statement on Sunday that said it was “regrettable” that Morey’s tweet had offended people in China, but that “the values of the league support individuals’ educating themselves and sharing their views on matters important to them.”

Silver issued a new written statement on Tuesday morning that said: “It is inevitable that people around the world — including from America and China — will have different viewpoints over different issues. It is not the role of the N.B.A. to adjudicate those differences.”

The statement continued: “However, the N.B.A. will not put itself in a position of regulating what players, employees and team owners say or will not say on these issues. We simply could not operate that way.”

Chinese government and basketball officials, as well as Chinese companies, pressured the N.B.A. to be more critical of Morey, and to go beyond a version of the league’s statement that appeared on Chinese social media platforms on Sunday. In that statement, the league appeared to call Morey’s tweet “inappropriate.” (The league denied that the difference in translation was intentional and said the English version should be considered its official response.)

Silver, in an interview with CNN after his news conference on Tuesday, hinted at frustration over the way the league’s actions have been received.

“I will say I’m a bit surprised that CCTV canceled the telecasting of preseason games, and specifically named me as the cause,” Silver said. “It’s interesting, while at the same time in the U.S. media, there is some suggesting I am not being protective enough of our employees. Clearly, they’re seeing it the other way in China, but I think, at the end of the day, we have been pretty consistent.”

The backlash hasn’t been limited to Silver and Morey. The Rockets superstar James Harden was criticized on social media for offering an apology to China while standing next to his teammate Russell Westbrook.

“What we are experts in is basketball, and we wanted to come here to promote basketball and see all of our fans in China,” Jordan said.

Silver acknowledged that Morey, who has routinely weighed in on political issues, had particularly incensed Yao Ming, the former Houston Rockets star who now leads the Chinese Basketball Association. The association said it was suspending a partnership with the Rockets.

“I think Yao is extremely unsettled,” Silver said. “I’m not sure he quite accepts sort of how we are operating our business right now, and again, I accept that we have a difference of opinion. I’m hoping that together Yao Ming and I can find an accommodation. But he is extremely hot at the moment, and I understand it.”



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