The Houston Rockets suddenly find themselves in the middle of a geopolitical controversy that could put their chief front-office executive’s job in jeopardy. After general manager Daryl Morey expressed support in a since-deleted tweet for pro-democracy efforts in Hong Kong, the Chinese government, the Chinese Basketball Association, and various Chinese businesses quickly denounced Morey and moved to sever ties with the Rockets. As a consequence, league sources told The Ringer that Rockets ownership has debated Morey’s employment status and whether to replace him.
On Sunday, the Chinese Basketball Association issued a statement on Weibo—a Chinese social media platform akin to Twitter—and expressed its “strong opposition” to what it called Morey’s “improper remarks regarding Hong Kong.” As a result, the CBA said it was suspending “exchanges and cooperation” with the Rockets. The Chinese Consulate in Houston also issued a statement saying it was “deeply shocked” by Morey’s “erroneous comments” and expressed “strong dissatisfaction.” The consulate also urged the Rockets to “correct the error and take immediate concrete measures to eliminate the adverse impact.”
Morey and the Rockets are currently in Tokyo as part of the NBA’s slate of preseason games in Asia. Representatives for the Rockets did not immediately reply to questions via email, and attempts to reach Morey for comment were unsuccessful.
So what exactly happened?
On Friday evening, Morey tweeted and then quickly deleted an image that said “fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong.” That prompted Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta to publicly rebuke Morey.
What’s the relationship between China and Hong Kong at the moment?
Extremely strained. Hong Kong is a special administrative region of the People’s Republic of China. Hong Kong has operated as a semiautonomous state with certain political and economic freedoms under the “one country, two systems” policy. Tensions increased in part over the summer when a highly controversial legislative measure was introduced that would allow criminal suspects to be extradited from Hong Kong to the mainland. At the time, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam claimed the bill would help the territory protect human rights, while opponents said it would undermine Hong Kong’s legal independence. Critics of the legislation said it could be used to pursue political opponents of the mainland government with murky perceived offenses in order to silence or, according to the Associated Press, disappear them in a system where “the vast majority of criminal trials end in conviction.” As a result, pro-democracy protesters and police have clashed for months, in increasingly chaotic scenes.
What’s the Rockets’ relationship with China?
Previously, excellent. According to a recent survey, the Rockets were the second-most popular team in China. That’s no surprise, given the fact that Hall of Famer Yao Ming played for the Rockets and helped exponentially grow the sport’s popularity in the country. But Yao is now the chair of the Chinese Basketball Association, which criticized Morey in its statement for making “an inappropriate comment related to Hong Kong” and said it “strongly opposes” the general manager’s remarks. At the moment, it seems unlikely that Yao will act as a mediator in the dispute between Morey, the Rockets, and the Chinese.
What’s the functional impact to the Rockets?
In addition to the CBA suspending cooperation with the Rockets, at least two other sponsors—sportswear brand Li-Ning and Shanghai Pudong Development Bank (SPDB)—also announced they were halting their relationships with the organization, according to Reuters. A former Rockets reporter tweeted that SPDB would “stop all marketing and promotion activities related to the Rockets.”
In an even bigger blow to the franchise and the league, Tencent—the NBA digital rights holder in China—“announced a blacklist of Daryl Morey due to his ‘Free HK’ tweet” and said it would “suspend all reports/streaming” of the Houston Rockets. Tencent is now offering a “switch home teams” option for fans who bought a single-team pass to watch Rockets games.
In July, Tencent and the NBA announced “a five-year expansion of their existing partnership” that would keep them in business through 2024-25 season. According to the release, nearly 500 million Chinese fans watched NBA games on Tencent platforms—which was up almost threefold from the 2014-15 season—while 21 million Chinese fans watched Game 6 of the 2019 NBA Finals through the service.
What’s the NBA’s position here?
On Sunday, NBA chief communications officer Mike Bass released the following statement:
“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. While Daryl has made it clear that his tweet does not represent the Rockets or the NBA, the values of the league support individuals’ educating themselves and sharing their views on matters important to them. 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.”
It’s safe to assume the league is not pleased that one of its most popular franchises in China has gotten into a messy public dispute with one of its biggest business partners. The potential political and financial fallout here is massive. One league source called it “not a small thing” while another declared it “an epic screwup.”
According to The Athletic’s Shams Charania, the league will not discipline Morey for his tweet.
I asked Ben Rhodes, the writer, podcaster, and former deputy national security adviser under President Obama, to put the situation in perspective. He responded that “this controversy highlights for me, above all, the Chinese sensitivity about Hong Kong.” Rhodes continued: “It’s been common in the past for China to bully U.S. companies, tech, and media to refrain from criticizing human rights violations. While it may have put Morey in an awkward spot it’s much more of a warning shot at the NBA broadly. … I think it’d be terrible for the league to indicate that it would silence the free speech of players and executives in deference to an authoritarian government.”
Where does all this leave Morey?
On thin ice. Morey is an incredibly bright guy, but after asking around it’s clear that he did not anticipate that his tweet would spark an international incident. From what I was told, Morey has friends in Hong Kong and was concerned with their safety, in light of the Chinese government’s ongoing attempts to restrict freedom of speech and assembly in their fight with Hong Kong over the extradition bill. Morey did what he thought was right, but his actions had significant unintended consequences.
On Sunday, Morey tweeted out a statement:
1/ I did not intend my tweet to cause any offense to Rockets fans and friends of mine in China. I was merely voicing one thought, based on one interpretation, of one complicated event. I have had a lot of opportunity since that tweet to hear and consider other perspectives.— Daryl Morey (@dmorey) October 7, 2019
Fertitta told ESPN that he has “the best general manager in the league” and that “everything is fine with Daryl and me.” But the Rockets owner also admitted that the organization has gotten “a huge backlash” as a result of Morey’s tweet. League sources told me that Rockets ownership has “absolutely discussed” whether Morey should be removed as general manager in an attempt to mitigate the fallout, appease the Chinese government and business interests, and reestablish ties. League sources also indicated that Morey is aware that those discussions have happened and is bracing for that possibility. As one league source put it, this has become “an international issue” that’s “way bigger” than Morey.
This article was updated to include a statement from the NBA, quotes from Ben Rhodes, and an update from Daryl Morey.