Silver defends NBA employees’ right to free speech as China cancels broadcasts

The NBA commissioner, Adam Silver, is scrambling to appease sponsors and broadcasters in China while still preserving the leagues progressive image

The NBA commissioner, Adam Silver, said the league is not apologizing for Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Moreys since-deleted tweet showing support for anti-government protesters in Hong Kong, even after Chinas state broadcaster canceled plans to show a pair of preseason games in that country later this week.

Silver, speaking on Tuesday at a news conference in Tokyo before a preseason game between the Rockets and the Toronto Raptors, went as far as to say that he and the league are apologetic that so many Chinese officials and fans were upset by Moreys tweet but insisted that the executive has the right to freedom of expression. The NBA has also received criticism from US politicians. Senator Ted Cruz said the league was guilty of assisting Chinese censorship by initially saying it was regrettable that Moreys tweet had caused offence in China.

Daryl Morey, as general manager of the Houston Rockets, enjoys that right [to free speech] as one of our employees, Silver said. What I also tried to suggest is that I understand there are consequences from his freedom of speech and we will have to live with those consequences.

Those consequences are already becoming clear. The state-run China Central Television (CCTV) said it would not show the games between the Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets, who will play on Thursday in Shanghai and Saturday in Shenzhen. Basketball is wildly popular in China, with the Lakers drawing particularly strong support due to the presence of superstar LeBron James

Were strongly dissatisfied and oppose Adam Silvers claim to support Moreys right to freedom of expression, CCTV said in a statement. We believe that any remarks that challenge national sovereignty and social stability are not within the scope of freedom of speech. The broadcaster is also reviewing all its cooperation with the NBA, according to the statement.

Chinese state media on Wednesday accused the NBA of endorsing violence with the China Daily accusing Silver of brazenly endorsing Moreys secessionist-supporting tweet and giving a shot to the arms of the rioters of Hong Kong.

The state-owned Global Times accused Silver of caving in to political pressure, saying the NBA was treating the Chinese market with disregard.

Silver will arrive in Shanghai on Wednesday and said he hoped to meet officials and some of the leagues business partners in an effort to find common ground. Im sympathetic to our interests [in China] and our partners that are upset, Silver said. I dont think its inconsistent on one hand to be sympathetic to them and at the same time stand by our principles.

Silver said the NBA did not expect CCTV to cancel plans to show the Lakers-Nets games. But if those are the consequences of us adhering to our values, I still feel its very, very important to adhere to those values, Silver said.

The rift between China and the NBA started late last week when Morey tweeted a now-deleted image that read: Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong, in reference to months of pro-democracy demonstrations in the Chinese territory that has been mired in violence between protesters and law enforcement.

Efforts were quickly made to defuse the impact. Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta said Morey does not speak for the Rockets, and Morey returned to Twitter on Monday in an effort to clarify his original post. NBA streaming partner Tencent which has a $1.5bn contract with the league over the next five seasons said it would not show Rockets games and a sports website in China said it was no longer covering the team.

Further complicating the matter is the fact that Chinas best-known basketball player is Hall of Famer Yao Ming, who spent his NBA career with the Rockets. Yao is now the president of the Chinese Basketball Association, which has said it is suspending its relationship with the Rockets in response to Moreys tweet. The CBA also canceled plans to have the G League affiliates from Houston and Dallas play preseason games in China later this month. Im hoping that together Yao Ming and I can find an accommodation, Silver said. But he is extremely hot at the moment, and I understand it.

The NBAs reaction to Chinese displeasure is jarring to some, given the fact that the league has won plaudits for encouraging its players to express their views on social issues they believe are important, such as police shootings of African Americans.

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