SHANGHAI (Reuters) - The National Basketball Association (NBA) came under fire on Monday for its response to a tweet by a Houston Rockets official in support of Hong Kong protests for democracy, the latest overseas business to run afoul of political issues in China.
The Rockets’ general manager, Daryl Morey, apologized on Monday for the tweet he swiftly deleted on the weekend, but his support for the protests in the Chinese-ruled city angered Beijing, Chinese fans and the team’s partners in a key NBA market.
“I did not intend my tweet to cause any offense to Rockets fans and friends of mine in China,” Morey tweeted on Monday.
“I was merely voicing one thought, based on one interpretation, of one complicated event,” he said, adding that he had since heard and considered other perspectives.
The Rockets are widely followed in China, partly because they drafted Chinese player Yao Ming in 2002, who became a star and helped build the NBA’s following there.
Morey’s initial tweet included an image captioned: “Fight For Freedom. Stand With Hong Kong.”
It prompted sportswear brand Li-Ning and sponsor Shanghai Pudong Development Bank (SPD Bank) Credit Card Center to suspend work with the Rockets, while the team’s games were dropped by China’s state broadcaster.
The post was later deleted and 47-year-old Morey, the NBA’s executive of the year in 2018, said his views did not represent the team or league.
In a separate statement, the NBA said “we recognize that the views expressed by Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey have deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China, which is regrettable”.
The Chinese-language version issued by the NBA appeared to go further than the English statement, saying: “We are extremely disappointed in the inappropriate remarks made by Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey.”
The NBA added, “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”.
U.S. lawmakers said the NBA’s response was shameful and showed how China was using its economic power to censor speech by Americans in the United States.
“As a lifelong @HoustonRockets fan, I was proud to see @dmorey call out the Chinese Communist Party’s repressive treatment of protesters in Hong Kong,” Texas Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican, said on Twitter. “Now, in pursuit of $$, the @NBA is shamefully retreating.”
Other legislators accused the NBA, no stranger to U.S. politics, of a double standard when it comes to China.
NBA stars and some coaches have been outspoken in their criticism of President Donald Trump, and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has urged players to speak out on issues of concern, including questions of alleged police brutality and gun violence.
When LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and other players warmed up for games in “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirts in 2014 to protest at the arrest that led to the death of an unarmed black man in New York, the league did not impose fines. James, the NBA’s biggest star, endorsed Hillary Clinton and campaigned for her in 2016.
“And the #NBA, which (correctly) has no problem with players/employees criticizing our gov’t, is now apologising for criticizing the Chinese gov’t. This is shameful and cannot stand,” New Jersey Congressman Tom Malinowski, a Democrat, said in a tweet.
The Rockets are in Japan for a pre-season exhibition against the Toronto Raptors. Star player James Harden said after a practice on Monday the controversy had not affected the players.
‘LONG TIME TO REPAIR’
The furore is the latest example of an overseas brand caught in controversy over the protests, which have plunged Hong Kong into its worst political crisis in decades and pose a major challenge to Beijing.
Many Western fashion brands, including Spain’s Zara, have been forced to clarify positions on Chinese sovereignty as the Hong Kong protests fuel nationalist fervour.
Chinese internet users in August blacklisted bubble tea brands from Taiwan after a Hong Kong franchise urged solidarity with protesters.
Sportswear brand Li-Ning said on Sunday it had stopped working with the Rockets and wanted “a clear answer on this matter”.
SPD Bank also suspended cooperation with the team, and state broadcaster CCTV’s sports channel has dropped Rockets games. On Sunday night, Tencent also said it would temporarily stop streaming Rockets games.
Joseph Tsai, owner of the Brooklyn Nets and co-founder of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group Holding Ltd, said the damage from Morey’s tweet “will take a long time to repair”.
Meanwhile, as of Monday searches for the Houston Rockets on Chinese e-commerce sites Taobao and Pinduoduo using Chinese characters yielded a “no results” message. Searching for the names of other sports teams in Chinese yielded an abundant mixture of jerseys, shoes and other merchandise.
A Pinduoduo spokeswoman declined to comment. Spokespersons for Alibaba and JD.com did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The Chinese Basketball Association, chaired by former Rockets star Yao, said it was suspending “exchanges and cooperation” with the team.
Hu Xijin, the editor of the state-controlled Global Times newspaper, tweeted on Monday that Morey “has the right to express his values, and Chinese fans of the Houston Rockets have the right to abandon this team. If the Rockets want to keep its Chinese market, the team need to avoid offending Chinese public.”
CCTV, in the first reporting on the controversy by state media, said Morey’s apology on Twitter did not go far enough.
Morey said in those tweets that he “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 or misunderstanding them was not my intention.”
Some Chinese fans called for a boycott of the Rockets.
“I watched the Rockets for 21 years, but I’m still a Chinese person first and foremost,” one social media user said.
China’s consulate in Houston said on Sunday it “made stern representations to the Rockets and requested them to clarify, to immediately correct any mistakes, and to eliminate any negative influences”.
(Reporting by Josh Horwitz in Shanghai, Chris Gallagher in Tokyo; Additional reporting by Lincoln Feast in Sydney and Kevin Krolicki in Singapore; Writing by Darren Schuettler; Editing by Gerry Doyle and Alex Richardson)