U.S. senators accused the National Basketball Association of putting cash over human rights Monday as the league appeared to back communist China after a team executive's comment set off a firestorm in the key market.
Senators from Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., to Marco Rubio, R-Fla., found common ground in piling on the NBA for its handling of a tweet from Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey. On Friday, Morey shared an image that read, "Fight for Freedom. Stand for Hong Kong." His tweet, referencing the months of pro-democracy protests in the semi-autonomous Hong Kong, ignited backlash in China, a major source of revenue for the NBA.
Criticism of the sports league mounted in the U.S. after NBA spokesman Michael Bass issued a statement Sunday saying Morey's views "have deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China, which is regrettable." Lawmakers, most of whom speak out against China's communist regime and its trade abuses, accused the sports league of valuing revenue over free expression.
"No one should implement a gag rule on Americans speaking out for freedom," Schumer said in a tweeted statement Monday. "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."
In a tweet Monday, Rubio argued the league is throwing Morey "under the bus to please" the Chinese government. Other senators, including Republicans Ben Sasse of Nebraska, Rick Scott of Florida, Ted Cruz of Texas and Josh Hawley of Missouri, and Democrats Brian Schatz of Hawaii and Ron Wyden of Oregon, have criticized the NBA since Sunday.
At least three Democratic presidential candidates — entrepreneur Andrew Yang, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. — also criticized China for trying to curb Morey's criticism and the NBA for yielding to Beijing's pressure.
A Chinese version of Bass' Sunday statement about Morey was posted on the league's verified account on Chinese social media platform Weibo. A CNBC translation found apparent differences between the league's statement in English and the Chinese version, which condemned Morey and had a more apologetic tone.
However, an NBA spokesperson said "there should be no discrepancy" between statements. "We have seen various interpretations of the translation of the Mandarin version, but our statement in English is the league's official statement," the spokesperson said.
China, the most populous country in the world with about 1.4 billion people, is the league's most important international market. As it announced a five-year extension of a China streaming partnership with Tencent in July, reportedly worth $1.5 billion, the NBA said about 490 million people in China watched league content on the company's platforms in the 2018-2019 season. That's more than the population of the entire United States.
Morey tweeted his support for Hong Kong only a few days before the Los Angeles Lakers, with face of the league LeBron James, are set to play the Brooklyn Nets in an exhibition game in China on Thursday. The Rockets — who drafted Chinese superstar Yao Ming in 2002 and became perhaps the most popular NBA team in China — were in Japan as the NBA dealt with the repercussions of Morey's comment.
After Morey's tweet, the Chinese Basketball Association — which Yao leads — ended its cooperation with the Rockets. China canceled an exhibition game between the G League affiliates (effectively the NBA's minor league teams) of the Rockets and Dallas Mavericks set for later this month, according to The Athletic.
Fury over the NBA's response to Morey was particularly sharp in the U.S. due to its reputation as an organization that values free speech and activism from its players. For example, James — one of the most decorated players in league history — has been outspoken both about police-involved killings of black men and efforts to boost compensation for college athletes.
Joshua Wong, a leader of the Hong Kong movement for self-determination, tweeted Sunday that Morey's "willingness to speak the truth is a great embodiment of the NBA's global social responsibility." He said the Chinese Communist Party denies freedom of speech.
"Let's us hold the CCP accountable for its violations of human rights," he wrote.
The senators' criticism of the NBA comes as members of Congress from both parties have grown more vocal in criticizing China's trade practices and human rights record. It adds another layer to U.S.-China tensions as trade negotiators from the world's two largest economies meet this week for high-stakes talks.
Several GOP senators chose to criticize the NBA even as they downplay President Donald Trump's request last week that China investigate his 2020 presidential rival Joe Biden. GOP senators have also said little about reports that Trump told Chinese President Xi Jinping earlier this year he would stay quiet about the Hong Kong protests as trade talks continue.
The Rockets quickly tried to contain the uproar in China following the general manager's comment. Team owner Tilman Fertitta tweeted late Friday that Morey "does NOT speak" for the Rockets. He added that the team is "NOT a political organization."
Morey himself apologized on Sunday, saying he "did not intend [his] tweet to cause any offense to Rockets fans and friends of mine in China." He said he was "merely voicing one thought" and that he hoped "that those who are upset know that offending or misunderstanding them was not my intention."
In Japan on Monday, Rockets superstar and former league MVP James Harden also apologized on behalf of the team. Standing next to his teammate and fellow former NBA MVP Russell Westbrook, Harden said "we love China" and "appreciate them as a fan base."
Joseph Tsai, co-founder of Chinese e-commerce titan Alibaba, who recently bought the 51% of the Nets he did not already own, also criticized Morey on Sunday. He said that while "freedom is an inherent American value and the NBA has been very progressive" in encouraging free speech, "there are certain topics that are third-rail issues in certain countries, societies and communities."
As the NBA and its owners try not to jeopardize the massive Chinese market, senators appear poised to make the league's operations there a major issue. In a statement Monday, Scott, the GOP senator, said he wanted to set up a meeting with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver "immediately to discuss the NBA's involvement" in China.
He argued the NBA should stop playing games in the country.
"We must all put human rights above profit. And that means standing with Hong Kong," Scott said.