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The limit of the NBA’s dedication to free speech

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The NBA’s commitment to free speech only goes so far.

A black-and-white image of Daryl Morey staring pensively in the distance.
Where does the NBA’s progressivism end?

We found the limit of the NBA’s dedication to political free speech. That limit is called the bottom line.

Daryl Morey, the Houston Rocket’s general manager and the league’s 2017-18 Executive of the Year, tweeted a message of support for protestors in Hong Kong. Protestors have been in the streets for months fighting an extradition bill and other restrictions on democratic self-rule being pushed by the Chinese government on the semi-autonomous region. Morey’s tweet included a graphic with a protestors’ slogan (“Fight for Freedom, Stand With Hong Kong”).

Almost simultaneously, Morey’s boss Tilman Fertitta and several Chinese businesses associated with the NBA flipped out in response.

Morey quickly deleted the tweet and Fertitta put out a boorish statement saying Morey doesn’t speak for the Rockets, which Fertitta called an apolitical organization, but the damage was already done. Then the Chinese Basketball Association announced it no longer had anything to do with the Rockets, and Chinese media giant Tencent told its subscribers they would not be broadcasting Rockets games or reporting Rockets news this season.

By Sunday, the NBA itself had to respond, especially with Chinese Basketball Association teams in the United States for preseason games, and two signature NBA teams — the Lakers and Nets — en route to China for a pair of preseason showcases. The NBA put out its statement in both English and Chinese.

In English, the NBA said it was “regrettable” that Morey’s tweet “deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China.” The league didn’t quite apologize, instead noting that Morey doesn’t speak for the Rockets or the league and that the NBA supports its personalities, “sharing their views on matters important to them.”

It’s a classic non-apology apology, which is typically useless but more appropriate here as an apology shouldn’t have been warranted. What’s especially bizarre and troubling is that Morey’s statement is not remotely controversial in the United States, where the NBA is based and does the bulk of its business. In fact, support for Hong Kong is one of the few things that the most prominent personalities in both major American political parties agree on.

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, a staunch conservative, told the people of Hong Kong that America is with them. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is about as far from Cruz ideologically as you can get in mainstream American politics, has said much the same about Hong Kong and China.

Basically, every major candidate for the Democratic Party nomination for President of the United States has said something similar to, or more strident than, what Morey offered. So has the person they are all trying to replace, President Donald Trump.

This isn’t to say that the Hong Kong issue is simple (it’s not) — it’s to say that what Morey tweeted is well within the bounds of what passes for generic American discourse on the topic. Without Fertitta’s disavowal, and the backlash from the CBA and Tencent, it might have gone totally under the radar.

It’s instructive to consider that after the Golden State Warriors preemptively declined a White House invitation that was perhaps never coming in the first place, Silver spoke up in support of the league’s players and coaches speaking their truths. Here’s a relevant and representative quote from around that time:

“We’re proud of the fact our players demonstrate to people globally that they are multi-dimensional they are not just ball players, they have views about the society around them.”

So here’s the rub. It looks like the NBA upholds the principles of free speech in democracies where free speech is (usually) tolerated and expected (like the United States), but not as it pertains to the regimes in which political free speech could result in lost revenue or missed opportunities for the league (like China, based on this weekend’s actions). Some estimates have the league’s business in China worth $4 billion. The Tencent deal alone was reportedly estimated at $1.5 billion.

The message to NBA players, coaches and staff is that you can be as political as you want so long as it only offends people without real power to affect the bottom line. Silver isn’t afraid of Trump’s ability to hurt his business, so NBA personalities can say whatever they want about him. But his stance is different when it comes to Chinese President Xi Jinping, who could theoretically rocket the league right out of China if he wanted. That reality informs the NBA’s response, and so far, Silver and the league look awfully bad.

There are some complicating factors in the NBA’s dodgy response. Morey isn’t a player. He’s a team official. The NBA may have been more cautious about tossing, say, James Harden or LeBron James overboard.

The timing is also difficult with superstar players including James, Kyrie Irving, Anthony Davis and perhaps a recuperating Kevin Durant headed to China this week. The league very well may have had to cater to Chinese sensitivities to prevent a signature preseason trip from getting canceled by the hosts at great embarrassment and expense to Silver’s league.

But some principles are worth great embarrassment and expense. We thought allowing the individuals that make up the NBA to express their political beliefs freely was one of those, based on Silver’s own assertions to that end. It turns out we were wrong: the NBA’s free speech principles only go so far. What a shame.