Cruz, Cotton and Ocasio-Cortez? China and the NBA Bring Rivals Together

By Patrick Goodenough | October 10, 2019 | 4:21am EDT
Republican Sens. Ted Cruz and Tom Cotton, and Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. (Photos: Getty Images)

( – The deepening row over Chinese attempts to intimidate the NBA continues to give rise to unlikely alliances on Capitol Hill, bringing together conservative Republicans with lawmakers as liberal as self-described Democratic socialist Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.)

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has been in the firing line over the league’s handling of a major controvery sparked by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey’s tweeted support for pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong.

The tweet caused an uproar in China, where the national broadcaster and a livestreaming sports channel with NBA broadcast rights joined other NBA partners in the country suspending all cooperation with the league..

The Rockets have been hugely popular in basketball-mad China, a massive market for the NBA.

Two “NBA Cares” events in China were canceled at the last minute, and a Thursday night preseason game in Shanghai between the Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets looked to be in jeopardy as well. (A second Lakers-Nets game is scheduled for Saturday in Shenzhen, the mainland city bordering Hong Kong.)

Back in Washington, five Republicans and three Democrats sent a letter Wednesday to Silver, voicing concern about the NBA’s initial response to the Morey incident – a response widely criticized as being more apologetic about his stance than supportive of his right to air it.

The signatories were Republican Sens. Ben Sasse (Neb.), Tom Cotton (Ark.) and Ted Cruz (Texas), Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden (Ore.), Republican Reps. Mike Gallagher (Wisc.) and Jim Banks (Ind.), and Democratic Reps. Ocasio-Cortez and Tom Malinowski (N.J.)

The lawmakers urged the NBA to make clear its support for the right of American players, staff, partners and fans to express their opinions, and said the league should suspend activities in China “until government-controlled broadcasters and government-controlled commercial sponsors end their boycott of NBA activities.”

“Unless American businesses aggressively confront this intimidation campaign, the Chinese government will increasingly punish free speech outside China’s borders,” they wrote.

“The most common method is to threaten access to the growing Chinese domestic market for any international company or organization that criticizes, or allows its employees to criticize, Chinese government policies. If not resisted, this pressure could result in American and multinational companies making employment conditional on silence regarding topics deemed sensitive by the Chinese Communist Party.”

The controversy arose after Morey posted a tweet on Friday featuring the slogan, “Fight For Freedom. Stand With Hong Kong” – in reference to months of protests by residents concerned that freedoms promised by Beijing when the territory reverted to Chinese rule in 1997 are being eroded.

(Image: NBA)

Morey later deleted the tweet and posted an apology, and the NBA in a brief statement on Sunday said the league recognized that the views Morey expressed “have deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China, which is regrettable.”

When that statement was reproduced in Chinese online media, the translation into Mandarin rendered a somewhat different message, saying the NBA was “extremely disappointed” by Morey’s “inappropriate” which had “seriously hurt the feelings” of fans in China.

‘The long-held values of the NBA’

Silver then issued a statement in which he said it was “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 NBA to adjudicate those differences.”

“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.”

Speaking in Japan on Tuesday, Silver said he wanted to clear up any lingering confusion about the league’s stance.

“The long-held values of the NBA are to support freedom of expression, and certainly freedom of expression by members of the NBA community. And in this case, Daryl Morey as the general manager of the Houston Rockets enjoys that right as one of our employees.”

Silver said he also understood that there were “consequences” from that exercise of freedom of speech, “and we will have to live with those consequences.”

“It’s my hope that, for our Chinese fans and our partners in China, they will see those remarks in the context of a now three-decade, if not longer, relationship.”

Silver’s clarification brought fresh criticism in Chinese state-owned media, which depict the protests in Hong Kong as secessionist rioting.

“Silver’s remarks have revealed the league’s previous honey-mouthed statement … was nothing but an attempt to prevent the hemorrhaging of profits made in China,” China Daily said in an editorial.

“Boasting the league is ‘a value-based organization,’ Silver has done the opposite, as clearly he feels no qualms about politicizing his organization by encouraging, in a craven yet ennobling way, his staff taking sides on issues they admit to having no understanding of.”

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang suggested the NBA was strangely out of touch with Chinese sentiments despite a long history in the country.

“For those engaging in exchange and cooperation with China, how can you make it work without understanding the public opinion in China?” he said during a press briefing. “The NBA has been working with China for a long while. It knows very well what it should say and do next.”

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