Updated at 9:40 a.m. on October 9, 2019
The NBA reveled in the praise it got for being the pro sports league that welcomes its players’ and employees’ opinions on political and social issues. But the league’s respect for open expression—which supposedly distinguished it from the NFL—suddenly has its limits.
A posting on Twitter Friday by the Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey showing support for the Hong Kong protesters has fractured the relationship between the National Basketball Association and its business partners in China, a country with deep pockets and an insatiable thirst for the sport. The tweet featured an image bearing the caption “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.” It wasn’t up for long, but it was enough to jeopardize the NBA’s growing ties with the Chinese Basketball Association and Chinese corporations.
Now the NBA is trying desperately to mollify China—which will accept no criticism of its embarrassing human-rights record—while also paying lip service to Morey’s right to express himself. This strategy is working quite miserably.
A few years ago, when the National Football League struggled to deal with the quarterback Colin Kaepernick and other players who protested police brutality by taking a knee during the national anthem, the NBA often was held up as a counterexample. The Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban went so far as to brag that, if Kaepernick were an NBA player, his viewpoints would have been welcomed. “I’d like to think we encourage our players to exercise their constitutional rights,” Cuban once told The Washington Post. Some of the biggest names in the NBA—from LeBron James to the Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr—have been extremely critical of President Donald Trump, and the NBA’s response has been to give them the space to say what they believe.