Seven-word tweet that sparked NBA crisis



Seven words.

That is all it took to throw one of the richest and most popular sports on the planet into an unprecedented public relations crisis.

The NBA - that's basketball, for the woefully uncultured among you - has spent the last week trying and quite miserably failing to contain the fallout from a single tweet.

That struggle has huge implications, which reach far beyond the world of sport.

It all started on Sunday, when the general manager of the Houston Rockets, Daryl Morey, published a tweet voicing his support for pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.

The tweet included an image bearing the words: "Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong."

Mr Morey's fit of moral clarity quickly passed, and he deleted the post, but it was already too late. China was angry.

Anti-government demonstrators have flooded the streets of Hong Kong for months, first in response to a controversial extradition bill, and then in a broader convulsion of fury at the Chinese Communist Party.

It is, to put it mildly, a sensitive subject for China. That makes it an equally sensitive subject for anyone wishing to do business in China.

And you know who really, really wants to do business in China? The NBA.

Basketball is China's most watched sport, with a viewership in the hundreds of millions. That's a lot of people, who represent a lot of money.

In an interview last year, the league's Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum revealed NBA China - which manages everything NBA-related in the country - was worth more than $4 billion.

Think of that number as one humungous incentive to keep China happy.

Which brings us back to Mr Morey's tweet.

The Chinese government didn't like it. So, by extension, the Chinese companies who partner with the NBA didn't like it either. Every last one of them responded by suspending their ties to the league.

The timing was particularly bad because some NBA teams, including the Rockets, were in Asia to play pre-season games.

China's state broadcaster immediately cancelled its plans to broadcast those games, as did Tencent Sports, the company that streams them online.

The Chinese Basketball Association, whose chairman is former Rockets star Yao Ming, announced it was ending its co-operation with the team.

And China's consulate general in Houston pointedly urged the NBA to "correct the mistakes".

All of this combined to form a swift and severe economic punishment, which was, by any sane measure, an utterly absurd response to one tweet. But hey, we're talking about a brutal authoritarian regime here. Crushing dissent is what those regimes do.

The far bigger problem was the NBA's response.

It reacted, in short, by folding like a proverbial lawn chair. Not one of those surprisingly sturdy Ikea ones, either. I'm talking about the crappy plastic thing you can buy at the local $2 shop.

In one statement, written in English, the NBA said it regretted Mr Morey's remarks and he did not represent the league or the Rockets.

Then there was the other statement, written in Chinese.

"We are extremely disappointed in the inappropriate remarks made by Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey," it said.

Mr Morey himself tweeted an apology of sorts, saying he'd had a chance to "hear and consider other perspectives" on Hong Kong since his original post.

Presumably the perspectives that don't believe in freedom.

Incredibly, the NBA also started to kick fans out of pre-season games for bringing along signs supportive of the Hong Kong protesters.

That failed to stop the backlash in China, and created an entirely new one back home in the United States. Politicians accused the NBA of sacrificing its principles for money.

"It's clear that the NBA is more interested in money than human rights. The NBA is kowtowing to Beijing to protect their bottom line and disavowing those with the temerity to stand with Hong Kong. Shameful," said Florida Senator Rick Scott.

"The NBA wants money, and the Communist Party of China is asking them to deny the most basic of human rights. In response, the NBA issued a statement saying money is the most important thing," said his colleague Ben Sasse."

Elizabeth Warren, who recently became the frontrunner for the Democrats' presidential nomination said the NBA had chosen "its pocketbook over its principles".

Donald Trump had a go as well. Don’t worry, we’ll get to him. Picture: Evan Vucci/AP
Donald Trump had a go as well. Don’t worry, we’ll get to him. Picture: Evan Vucci/AP

Here's the thing. The NBA is not an organisation that typically stops its employees from sharing their political views. In fact, it usually encourages freedom of expression.

Coaches Gregg Popovitch and Steve Kerr have both been vocal critics of Donald Trump. So have certain players, such as Golden State superstar Steph Curry.

None of those guys were willing to stick up for Mr Morey this week.

"This situation has a huge weight and gravity to it, and there are some things that need to be sorted out, but I just don't know enough about Chinese history and how that's influenced modern society today," Curry said when he was asked about the controversy.

Yesterday we reported on a farcical Rockets press conference, during which a media minder stepped in to shut down questions about Hong Kong.

James Harden and Russel Westbrook at the press conference in question. They were stopped from answering questions on Hong Kong and China. Picture: CNN
James Harden and Russel Westbrook at the press conference in question. They were stopped from answering questions on Hong Kong and China. Picture: CNN

"The NBA has always been a league that prides itself on its players and coaches being able to speak out openly about political and societal affairs," reporter Christina Macfarlane said, addressing players James Harden and Russel Westbrook.

"I just wonder, after the events of this week and the fallout we've seen, whether you would both feel differently about speaking out in that way in the future."

It was an entirely legitimate question, and the (successful) attempt to stop the players from answering it was quite rightly slammed.

So Mr Trump made a fair point when he highlighted the NBA's complete double standard on political speech.

Granted, he did it with all the maturity of a three-year-old child, but it was a fair point nonetheless.

"I watched this guy Steve Kerr, and he was like a little boy, he was so scared to be even answering the question. He couldn't answer the question, he was shaking. He didn't know how to answer the question, and yet he'll talk about the United States very badly," the President said.

"I watched Popovich, sort of the same thing, but he didn't look quite as scared actually. But they talk badly about the United States, but when it talks about China, they don't want to say anything bad. I thought it was pretty sad, actually."

Of course, having called out the NBA coaches for demurring on the issue, Mr Trump proceeded to do the same thing. Hypocrisy is kind of his whole deal these days.

"So are you OK with the Chinese government pressuring the NBA sir?" a reporter asked.

"It'll be very interesting. Excuse me?" the President said, apparently failing to hear the question.

"Are you OK then with the Chinese government pressuring the NBA over Hong Kong?" the reporter repeated.

"They have to work out their own situation. The NBA is - they know what they're doing," said Mr Trump.

"But I watch the way that Kerr and Popovich and some of the others were pandering to China, and yet to our country they don't. It's like they don't respect it."

OK. I've given you the context. I suppose it's time to arrive at the point.

The NBA is not alone here. It is merely the latest business to face an increasingly common and insidious dilemma - to stand up for its principles, or to sacrifice those principles to keep China happy, in pursuit of profit.

This week Apple removed the app HKMapLive, which had been used by Hong Kong protesters to track police activity, claiming it violated "our guidelines and local laws". The real reason? China's state-owned newspaper the People's Daily had been criticising the app.

The gaming company Activision Blizzard banned professional player Chung Ng Wai from its tournaments after he voiced support for the Hong Kong demonstrators in a postgame interview.

ESPN employees received an internal memo barring them from referencing Chinese politics when talking about the NBA controversy.

Multiple companies, including a number of airlines, have apologised for using "incorrect" maps of China which did not list Taiwan as part of the country.

Mercedes-Benz apologised for posting an Instagram photo with a quote from the Dalai Lama.

Nike removed Rockets merchandise from its Chinese stores after Mr Morey's tweet.

Paramount Pictures got rid of the Taiwanese flag on Tom Cruise's jacket in the trailer for Top Gun: Maverick.

We could keep going for some time. Businesses are bending over backwards all over the place to avoid anything that could be construed as criticism of China. It's an incredibly awkward subject to talk about, but the more we ignore it, the worse it gets.

Thanks to the NBA's troubles this week, maybe the ignorance will stop.

Yes, billions of dollars are at stake here. So are some less tangible, but arguably more valuable things. Human rights. Freedom of expression. You know, the sort of high-minded principles insufferable people like me write weekend thinkpieces about.

Everyone expects China's government to scorn those principles. That doesn't mean we have to as well.

Continue the conversation on Twitter: @SamClench