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Last week, Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey sent out a tweet that probably felt pretty innocuous at the time. He wrote: “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.”
His boss, Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta, immediately moved to distance Morey’s stance from anything related to the Houston Rockets, and Morey deleted his tweet.
It didn’t work. According to Yu Fu, a journalist who covers the Rockets, the country is now exacting revenge by criticizing Morey in state-run media accounts, while a company that previously offered coverage of the Rockets is suspending it until Morey offers an explanation.
Wait, what now?
Yeah. This thing really blew up. Which, to be clear, Yu Fu understood even when Morey first sent his tweet:
Now let’s get to what’s actually happening right now, according to Fu.
Meanwhile, Tencent, a network that provided access to Rockets games, is allowing Chinese fans who subscribed to those games to instead pick another team to follow. It appears Rockets games won’t be available in China.
Tencent is also planning on ignoring Morey for the time being.
What has the reaction been?
Robust. People are now using Morey’s subsequent tweets to debate the Hong Kong-China issue. A run-of-the-mill picture of the sunrise has generated thousands upon thousands of comments. You can wade in, if you please.
How much of an impact will this have on the Rockets, and the NBA in China?
A huge one, potentially. The Rockets are — or were? — wildly popular in China because Yao Ming played his NBA career in Houston and is the country’s most recognizable star.
Oh, and he has a part in this as well: He’s the president of the Chinese Basketball Association, which announced that it will no longer cooperate with the Rockets.
This is, of course, quite the mess. The NBA has pushed to globalize its game, because there’s money there. According to Forbes, the NBA’s China program had a value of $4 billion in 2018. Also, that Tencent deal that brought the league $700 million was scheduled to last five years — and was signed in 2015.
There’s a lot of money at stake here. That’s why Fertitta, who made his fortune in restaurants and casinos and then purchased the Rockets for $2.2 billion in 2017, was so quick to jump in.
So is Morey going to lose his job over this?
Before this blowback from China, he clarified his stance and supported Morey.
But Chinese media — which, again, is largely government controlled — has been fairly transparent about its desire to see Morey disciplined or fired.
I’m still not sure how to feel about this. What are people saying about it?
There’s been a strong backlash to intermingling of sports and politics — hte pendulum has swung, in many places, toward a “Just let me watch the game in peace” approach.
But sports is inherently political, especially when you’re talking about trying to take an American league and broaden its popularity and influence in other countries. There’s no escaping that.
The NBA, under Adam Silver, has mostly done a good job of allowing its players and coaches to have a voice on social and political issues. LeBron James hosted the signing of a historic bill granting college athletes in California unprecedented rights, and rallied for Hillary Clinton during the last election. Steve Kerr has railed against President Donald Trump and called for increased gun control.
But those issues divide Americans at the voting booth and on Twitter but are unlikely to have much sway over whether they patronize professional basketball.
Morey, though, has offended one of the most powerful governments in the world. A government that controls what its citizens see and pay for and are allowed to support. This will be real test.
What people are getting wrong about this story
That Morey said anything that was controversial to anyone other than the communist dictator he aimed it toward.
The protestors in Hong Kong are, broadly, trying to keep their city free from Chinese President Xi’s brutal rule, which has included the mass incarceration of religious minorities on a scale unlike anything we’ve seen since the Holocaust. Please read that last clause again.
Hong Kong was supposed to have a high degree of autonomy when it was returned to Chinese rule, but Human Rights Watch, among others, has found that Xi’s regime is already trying to limit free speech and political activism there.
China exerts vast control over its media, academia and even the internet. Its citizens are not free. Saying they should be free is not controversial.