It turns out a billion Chinese do care.
Enough for the NBA to lose a billion dollars.
Freedom of speech ain’t free.
When Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey recently tweeted out a thought supporting Hong Kong, and its pro-democracy movement, in its fight with China, things got more than a bit crazy — over there and here, too.
The NBA’s initial response to the tweet and to the reaction was less than supportive of Morey, distancing itself in a manner that reflected the potential loss of money. The Rockets are — were — the most popular NBA team in China — thanks in part to the club’s history with Yao Ming — where there are a whole lot of basketball fans who buy a whole lot of NBA merchandise.
The now infamous — and since deleted — tweet read like this: “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong.”
Chinese government officials didn’t appreciate Morey’s opinion and made that known to the NBA. The league, which has supported its players’ rights to speak out on social and political issues, wasn’t happy about Morey’s tweet, and the Rockets executive sent out a second tweet walking back his first. It read:
“I did not intend my tweet to cause any offense to Rockets fans and friends of mine in China. I was merely voicing one thought, based on one interpretation, of one complicated event. I have had a lot of opportunity since that tweet to hear and consider other perspectives.
“I have always appreciated the significant support our Chinese fans and sponsors have provided and I would hope that those who are upset will know that offending and misunderstanding them was not my intention. My tweets are my own and in no way represent the Rockets or the NBA.”
Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta also distanced the organization from Morey’s initial comment.
Upon further review, even as it considered the financial ramifications of Morey’s expression and China’s response to it, the NBA subsequently released the following statement:
“We recognize that the views expressed by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey have offended so many of our friends and fans in China, which is regrettable. While Daryl has made it clear that his tweet does not represent the Rockets or the NBA, the values of the league support individuals’ educating themselves and sharing their views on matters important to them. We have great respect for the history and culture of China and hope that sports and the NBA can be used as a unifying force to bridge cultural divides and bring people together.”
It’s a nice hope, but as of now, Chinese businesses are pulling away from ties to the league. The state television network in China will not televise two NBA preseason games it previously had planned to broadcast. The company that holds the digital broadcasting rights to stream NBA games in China has suspended streaming those games. Other companies have bailed, too.
Money is often tethered to opinion. Many times, those expressing views do so to protect what they see as theirs, or what they see as valuable to them. Some have criticized Warriors coach Steve Kerr and Spurs coach Gregg Popovich for their silence on this issue, since in the past they have been outspoken regarding, as the NBA put it, “matters important to them.” Popovich says he does support how Silver is handling the issue.
Maybe democracy in Hong Kong isn’t all that significant to them, or maybe it is and they’re being careful not to hurt themselves or their organizations. Who knows? If folks should have the right to express opinions, they should have the right not to express them, too.
Either way, bottom line here isn’t the bottom line.
Freedom of speech, in general, is one of the most important principles of American society, whether, in the specific, it’s popular or unpopular, whether a lot of people agree with it or don’t, whether a foreign government likes it or hates it.
It’s not always good for business, but it’s for the greater good.
Observers say free speech isn’t free of consequences, and that might be true, but, even if it is monetarily costly, or disturbs and upsets the powers that be, wherever they are, whoever they are, protecting that right in this country is far beyond worth it. Yes, it gets complicated in cases where that freedom espouses hatred, and there are lines of decency that should be protected.
But since when did standing up for democracy fit into that category?
Freedom can be expensive. The NBA is rediscovering that, big time.
It’s worth it.
No matter what a billion Chinese think.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.