The raging controversy over a tweet made by an official at an NBA franchise and the Chinese response to it created a new debate - are American values capitulating to the chinese financial might?
The sequence of events started on Friday when NBA team Houston Rockets' General Manager Daryl Morey tweeted a post that read "Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong."
In the immediate backlash, Chinese businesses cancelled sponsorship deals while the Chinese Basketball Association said it was suspending association with the Rockets.
According to the LA Times Tencent, which has a partnership deal with NBA until 2024, decided to not air the team's games.
The tweet in support of the protesters in the former British colony who are resisting Chinese efforts to further restrict their dwindling freedoms was not exactly a gross violation of any NBA code. Yet the National Basketball Association came down heavily on the Houston Rockets manager and disowned his comments. The franchise also issued a statement dissociating itself from the controversial comments.
The response of NBA and Houston Rockets gave rise to criticism with people asking if the famed league known for its endorsement of social activism was caving in, in the face of chinese wrath.
Rockets owner Tillman Fertita said Morey "doesn't speak for the Houston Rockets" and that the Rockets are "not a political organization," LA Times reported.
The NBA also said in a statement that Morey's comment had "deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China, which is regrettable."
Morey withdrew his comment and said he did not intend to cause any offence to Rockets fans and friends in China. "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 or misunderstanding them was not my intention. My tweets are my own and in no way represent the Rockets or the NBA," he said.
We apologize, says Rockets star James Harden
Rockets star James Harden also sent in his apologies to the Chinese. "We apologize. We love China. We love playing there ... They show us the most important love, so we appreciate them as a fan base."
Surprisingly, Brooklyn owner Joe Tsai vociferously defended the Chinese backlash and went on to describe the Hong Kong protest as a 'third rail issue' in China. "What is the problem with people freely expressing their opinion? This freedom is an inherent American value and the NBA has been very progressive in allowing players and other constituents a platform to speak out on issues. The problem is, there are certain topics that are third-rail issues in certain countries, societies and communities," he wrote in a Facebook post.
However, analysts and critics pointed out that the quick capitulation of NBA was asymmetrical of its recent public and political positioning. Political activism and championing of the marginalised sections' right to freedom have been core to NBA principles. Some observers commented that the NBA 'surrender' in front of China exposed its hypocrisy.
The developments prove that the NBA has more at stake than its Chinese fortune, Brandon Tensley wrote in CNN. "The question now is: What governs the NBA -- its hard-won values or the financial pressure of an autocratic regime?" he asked.
Politicians across the spectrum also criticised NBA. "No one should implement a gag rule on Americans speaking out for freedom ... I stand with the people of Hong Kong in their pursuit of democratic rights. I stand with Americans who want to voice their support for the people of Hong Kong. Unacceptable," Senate Minority leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York) tweeted.