Nov 15th, 2019, 11:37 AM

When China Foots The Bill Yuan Some You Lose Some

By Cameron Waggett
Image Credit: Twitter screenshot
American professional basketball will forever be linked to the Hong Kong protests. On October 6th Houston Rockets’ General Manager Daryl Morey shockingly relinquished his right to free speech by prostrating himself in front of China on Twitter in the wake of his now deleted pro-Hong Kong tweet two days earlier. Or is this business as usual for “Milquetoast Morey?”

I think it is business as usual for Morey. He was destined to kowtow to China all along.

While some may have been surprised by Morey’s groveling act towards China, I wasn’t. Morey’s eventual show of obsequious deference to the authoritarian regime was predictable – the NBA and its employees have long turned a blind eye to China. To that end, I turn the clock back to several historical examples to support my view:

  • The NBA is proud to be known as “North America’s most racially-conscious league;” at the same time, the NBA has had no qualms about running a training center over the past three years in, Xinjiang, China. For those not currently aware: the Chinese government has illegally imprisoned roughly one million Uighurs (a Muslim ethnic minority group residing in China) in Xinjiang. The United Nations has condemned China for the lack of human rights in this region. And consequently, Xinjiang has been described as “one of the world’s worst humanitarian atrocities."

  • Steve Nash spoke out against the Iraq war in 2003, at a time when such a stance was not prevalent amongst NBA players. In 2010 he persuaded his team to wear “Los Suns” t-shirts in opposition to Arizona’s draconian Latinx-targeting laws. However, somehow Nash had no problem profiting from human rights-abusing China via his deals with Nike and Chinese brand, Luyou.

  • And in 2006, the NBA’s former commissioner, David Stern, even went so far as to voice his displeasure about the league’s involvement with China. Stern was all talk, however, as he did nothing to stop the NBA’s presence in China.

So, when it comes to the NBA and China, you see how the story goes.

Image Credit: Creative Commons/Gage Skidmore

Also, Morey lacked support from his boss to stand behind his tweet. Thus, he had no choice but to bow to China. Who knows what inspired Morey’s pro-Hong Kong tweet on October 4th. Was it the on-going US China trade talks? Maybe his team’s upcoming pre-season games in Asia? Perhaps he was empowered by the pro-Hong Kong and anti-Trump buzz generated by Mitt Romney? Morey retweeted a Mitt Romney Trump-denouncing, China-related tweet on October 4th, the same day Morey tweeted out his support of Hong Kong. China, like Trump (it would seem), is against Hong Kong’s fight for freedom.

Image Credit: Creative Commons/Mexicaans fotomagazijn

My favorite personal hypothesis: Morey’s pro-democracy blood started pumping after watching the October 2nd premiere of South Park’s “Band in China” (an episode that parodies China’s media censorship). The likelihood of Morey watching this particular South Park episode is high. South Park is the top cable comedy telecast for 18-49 year-olds, a demographic that includes Morey (47 years-old). Plus, the episode featured Morey’s star player, the Houston Rockets’ James Harden!

Whatever the reason(s), Morey quickly deleted his now provocative rallying cry. Later the same evening, Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta scolded Morey in front of the Twitterverse while attempting to dampen the political nature of Morey’s comments. He tweeted,

(Twitter screenshot) 

As a result, Morey took to Twitter to issue a “sort of” apology (but an apology nonetheless) for his pro-Hong Kong tweet. Clearly, Morey was not about to let the drama over his October 4th tweet force him to part ways with one of his great loves – basketball. As such, he chose to play it safe.

Image Credit: Creative Commons/Ytoyoda

The Rockets’ historical and emotional ties to China run deeper than most NBA teams. Morey caved to China because of this. The Rockets eagerly drafted the Chinese-born giant, Yao Ming, 1st overall in 2002. Living up to the hype, Yao would go on to become the first (and still only) Chinese star in the NBA. During his Space City tenure, the Rockets’ prized selection helped his squad off the court as much as he did on it: Yao single-handedly opened doors for the Rockets in China, and created a generation of Chinese fans that have remained loyal to the team even after his 2011 retirementa recent study finding that the Rockets ranked second only to the Golden State Warriors in online popularity in China. Second place in online popularity notwithstanding ‘“The Rockets are China’s NBA team”’. Or at least they were.

After his Twitter apology, @dmorey went silent. I wondered if we would ever hear from him again. On October 24th, after 18 long days (an eternity for Twitter), he resurfaced with a very uncontroversial retweet concerning his team’s upcoming first game of the regular season.

Image Credit: Creative Commons/Morbidthoughts

He’s since slowly come back to life on Twitter, but the damage remains. Despite the major fallout between China and the NBA following Morey’s initial tweet, Tencent has inconspicuously started broadcasting NBA games again. But the fence-mending is still far from complete: while the Rockets and other teams kicked off the regular season in celebratory fashion on October 24th, China opted not to televise any of the games.

For those who presumed the NBA to be the voice of reason on issues of social justice, the Daryl Morey situation may come as a shock. However, as long as Morey and the rest of the NBA continue making a slam-dunk in China, among other factors, expect more of the same from them. If you care about social justice, I say “stop watching the NBA!”