NBA·The Buzzer

Why the NBA is playing both sides of its China controversy

The NBA's response to a general manager's tweet supporting the Hong Kong protests shows that, sometimes, encouraging free speech is good for business. And sometimes it isn't.

Sometimes, encouraging free speech is good for business. Sometimes, it isn't.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver is scrambling to smooth over the hurt feelings caused by a social-media post. (Gerry Broome/The Associated Press)

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Here's what you need to know right now in the world of sports:

The NBA is sorry/not sorry for Daryl Morey's tweet — because it has to be

Quick recap of the biggest controversy in sports right now: over the weekend, the Houston Rockets' GM sent out a tweet with the words "Fight For Freedom. Stand With Hong Kong." It was a show of support for the pro-democracy protests that have been going on in the China-ruled, semiautonomous city since the spring — and which have intensified more recently. This did not go over well with the authoritarian Chinese government. The NBA, clearly fearing for its business in a country with a tightly controlled economy and an estimated half billion basketball fans, quickly tried to make amends. The league, Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta and Morey himself all issued statements emphasizing that Morey does not speak for the NBA or the team. Morey deleted the original tweet and sent another saying he didn't mean to offend anyone and had since had a chance to "consider other perspectives." Houston star James Harden, who endorses a shoe brand that does business in China, also tried to distance himself and the Rockets from the tweet. New Brooklyn Nets owner Joseph Tsai, who made his fortune co-founding the Chinese equivalent of Amazon, criticized Morey too.

All that backpedalling drew the NBA plenty of heat back home. Many North Americans side with the Hong Kong protestors, and a wide range of people here are ripping the NBA for what they see as putting its business interests ahead of its supposed values. It's not just sports pundits either. When two people as far apart on the political spectrum as Ted Cruz and Beto O'Rourke are united in calling you out, you know you've got a public relations disaster on your hands. 

Meanwhile, China is still angry. The state broadcaster said in a statement today that it believes "any remarks that challenge national sovereignty and social stability are not within the scope of freedom of speech." CCTV also said it will no longer carry a couple of pre-season games being held in China this week and is also reviewing its deals with the NBA. This came after the company that streams NBA games in China threatened to drop the Rockets from its service, a sports news website said it wouldn't cover them anymore and a sporting-goods company cut its ties with the team. The Chinese Basketball Association has also put its relationship with the Rockets on hold. The president of that league is Hall of Famer Yao Ming — the best-known Chinese basketball player ever. He played for the Rockets, which is the biggest reason why the team is so popular in China.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver's strategy has been to play this down the middle. In a statement issued today in response to "those who question our motivation," he made sure to mention the NBA's "great affinity for the people of China" before making it clear that Morey won't be punished for the tweet. "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," Silver said. He added at a press conference: "I understand there are consequences from [Morey's] freedom of speech and we will have to live with those consequences." But he also said he and the league are "apologetic" that any Chinese officials or civilians were upset by what Morey tweeted. He tried to square these two approaches by explaining: "I don't think it's inconsistent on one hand to be sympathetic to them and at the same time stand by our principles."

Silver doesn't have much choice but to handle it this way. Like most multinational businesses, the NBA wants to expand and grow. And it figured out a while ago (along with every other sports league) that China and its 1.4 billion people offer a massive opportunity to accomplish that. But doing business there requires staying friendly with the government, which is why the NBA is trying so hard to distance itself from the pro-Hong Kong view expressed by Morey. At the same time, the NBA has to consider its North American fans. The league has gone to great lengths under Silver to brand itself as the modern, progressive ("woke" if you will) sports league — an alternative to the more old-school, authoritarian NFL. The NBA's fanbase leans more big-city-liberal than the NFL's, so encouraging free speech was good for business when, say, LeBron James called President Donald Trump a "bum" on Twitter. But now another tweet is threatening the business, and the league has decided a nuanced response is the best way to limit the damage on all sides. If you thought the NBA would unequivocally stand up for free speech in this case, maybe you're expecting too much from your sports leagues.

Houston GM Daryl Morey started this all with a tweet. (Pat Sullivan/The Associated Press)

Quickly...

Pinball Clemons is the Argos' new GM. The legendary former player replaces Jim Popp, who was fired today. Popp steered the team to a Grey Cup win only two years ago, but the team is 6-26 since then (including 2-12 this season). Pinball is one of the most beloved players in Canadian football history. Only 5-foot-6, he spent his entire CFL career with the Argos as an exciting runner/receiver/kick returner capable of bouncing off defenders to break off a big play any time he touched the ball. He holds the league record for career all-purpose yards and was the CFL's Most Outstanding Player in 1990. Clemons won three Grey Cups as a player with Toronto and another as head coach in 2004 before moving to an executive job with the team. His top priority as GM will be finding a quarterback. The Argos have had a hole at the game's most important position since Ricky Ray suffered a career-ending injury in the 2018 season opener. Read more about Pinball and the job he faces here.

Simone Biles broke another record. The American superstar won her 21st career medal at the gymnastics world championships by helping the U.S. win the team event. That breaks a tie with Russia's Svetlana Khorkina for the most ever by a woman. Biles, who now has 15 gold medals, posted the best scores in the vault, balance beam and floor routines to give the Americans their seventh consecutive gold medal in this event at the worlds or Olympics. Russia took the silver and Italy the bronze. China missed the podium — the first time that's happened at a world championships since 2003. Canada finished seventh, but it had already clinched a spot in the 2020 Olympics by placing fifth in qualifying. The men's team final is Wednesday at 7:45 a.m. ET. Watch it live here. Canada did not qualify and also failed to make the Olympics.

Canada got crushed again at the Rugby World Cup. Six days after losing 63-0 to two-time defending champion New Zealand, Canada fell 66-7 to another powerful team, South Africa. The Canadians have one more match left — against fellow lightweight Namibia — but only pride will be at stake. Canada has no chance to advance to the knockout round or even to finish in third place in its group, which would have guaranteed a spot in the next World Cup. Read more about today's blowout loss and Canada's outlook for the finale here.

The Twins are out after losing their 16th post-season game in a row. That ties the 1975-79 Chicago Blackhawks for the longest playoff losing streak in the history of the four major North American pro sports leagues. Last night's 5-1 loss to the Yankees also made Minnesota the first team since 1980 to get swept in the first round of the playoffs after winning at least 100 games in the regular season. New York advances to the American League Championships Series, where it will face the winner of the Houston-Tampa Bay series. Houston leads two games to one and can wrap it up with a win tonight. Both National League Division Series will be decided tomorrow when St. Louis visits Atlanta and Washington visits the L.A. Dodgers.

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