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The NBA said Tuesday it won’t regulate what players, coaches and team owners say. The statement came shortly after Chinese state television network CCTV canceled the broadcast of two NBA games scheduled to take place in China later this week. The decision was explained as a direct reaction to Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey’s recent tweet expressing support for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.
“It is inevitable that people around the world — including from America and China — will have different viewpoints over different issues,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s statement read. “It is not the role of the NBA to adjudicate those differences.”
He added: “However, 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. We simply could not operate that way.”
The commissioner’s remarks aren’t likely to mollify Beijing in the near term. When announcing the cancellation of its broadcast of this week’s games, CCTV said it would “immediately investigate all cooperation and exchanges involving the NBA.” The broadcaster cited Silver’s comments from a day earlier, in which he offered a softly worded defense of Morey’s right to free expression, saying it was one of the “values that have been part of this league from its earliest days.”
In a news briefing in Beijing on Tuesday, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said, “These foreign teams should know the opinions of China’s citizens, or it will not work,” according to local reports. He also said that the NBA “knows what it needs to do,” seeming to suggest some kind of punishment of Morey or a more effusive apology was in order.
The incident began Sunday when Morey tweeted an image with the words “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong” — a reference to the pro-democracy protests against China’s authoritarian government that have stormed the city’s streets for weeks. Although Twitter is banned in China, word of the tweet immediately went viral in China, where control over Hong Kong is one of Beijing’s central priorities.
Morey quickly deleted the tweet, and the Houston Rocket’s owner Tilman Fertitta stated that the coach doesn’t speak for the team.
The business damage done was already considerable, however, as Chinese Internet giant Tencent said it would no longer stream Rockets games, and many retailers in the country pulled the team’s merchandise. ?The fall from grace for the Rockets was especially striking, given that they have been one of China’s most beloved teams, thanks to the career of Chinese star Yao Ming at the franchise.
The NBA’s initial response to the controversy inspired scorn on both sides of the Pacific. U.S. politicians and other commentators felt the league was bowing to pressure from China’s authoritarian government and sacrificing its ideals, while many in China pointed out that Silver and Morey expressed regret but had stopped short of fully apologizing. Common refrains online in China are that the NBA should make a statement explicitly saying that Hong Kong is part of China and also that the league should punish players and staffers who express support for Hong Kong’s protest movement in the same way that they would if NBA figures used a racial slur.
CCTV’s sports channel had planned to broadcast live the two preseason games that are scheduled to be held in China later this week featuring the Brooklyn Nets and the Los Angeles Lakers. The first game will take place Thursday night in Shanghai, followed by a rematch Saturday in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen. The excitement surrounding the games in China, where basketball is the most popular fan sport by far, has since turned to tension.
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