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Warriors president: NBA won't muzzle players or management after Rockets GM tweet angered China

Key Points
  • The NBA will not prevent players or management from speaking out on social issues, Golden State Warriors President and COO Rick Welts tells CNBC.
  • "It's not going to happen. It's not what the NBA is about," Welts says.
  • The league is facing intense criticism in mainland China after Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey tweeted his support for Hong Kong's pro-democracy protesters.
VIDEO4:0704:07
Golden State Warriors president says NBA backlash in China will pass

The NBA will not prevent players or management from further speaking out on social issues, even as the league grapples with fallout in China from comments by the general manager of the Houston Rockets about protesters in Hong Kong, Golden State Warriors President and COO Rick Welts told CNBC on Monday.

"It's not going to happen. It's not what the NBA is about. It's not what our leadership is about," said Welts, in response to a question about whether the league would specifically bar people from discussing the Hong Kong protests.

"I think it's one of the things that's distinguished in the NBA, in terms of the encouragement of everyone to have a voice," Welts said on "Squawk on the Street."

The NBA is facing intense criticism in mainland China after Rockets GM Daryl Morey expressed his support for pro-democracy protesters on Friday in a now-deleted tweet that said, "Fight for Freedom. Stand for Hong Kong."

Thousands of protesters have taken to the streets for four months over concerns about Beijing's expanding influence over Hong Kong, which the British handed over to China in 1997. Those protests have become increasingly violent. China's response to the demonstrations is being closely watched around the world and particularly by the U.S., as American and Chinese officials resume high-level trade talks in Washington later this week.

Morey's remarks were attacked by the Chinese Consulate General in Houston. The Chinese Basketball Association —whose president is Rockets' legendary center Yao Ming — said it was severing ties with Houston. Tencent, which holds the streaming rights for the NBA in China, said it would no longer show the Rockets' games.

The NBA issued a statement that called the reaction to Morey's remarks "regrettable," but reaffirmed the league's commitment to free speech.

A Mandarin version of Sunday's NBA statement about Morey was posted on the league's verified account on Chinese social media platform Weibo. A CNBC translation of the post found differences between the league's statement in English and the Mandarin version, which had a more apologetic tone.

However, a 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.

The league's response has been criticized by many, including politicians, as not strong enough. Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texas, said the NBA was "shamefully retreating."

The situation is particularly fraught for the NBA due to its popularity and sizable business interests in China. The league has spent decades cultivating fans in the country, and Welts noted that China is the only country in which the NBA has a separately incorporated business.

"NBA China has literally hundreds of employees in China today who are promoting the game of basketball and promoting the sport and its business on television and consumer products," said Welts, whose Warriors are the most popular team in China, one study found.

Welts said he was optimistic that the current controversy would not alter the NBA's popularity in China over the long term.

"I think, when we put this in perspective, six months from now it's not going to look as big as it's looking today," he said.

Even so, the controversy puts scrutiny on the NBA's reputation as the most progressive professional sports league in the U.S.

Many NBA players and coaches, in particular, are outspoken on social issues such as police brutality and gun violence. Few are as outspoken as Steve Kerr, the Warriors' head coach. Kerr, whose father was assassinated in Lebanon, is a staunch advocate for gun control.

"Steve has great standing in talking about that," Welts said. "No one ever in the NBA is going to discourage people from having those opinions."

VIDEO10:5710:57
Watch CNBC's full interview with the Golden State Warriors president Rick Welts

— CNBC's Saheli Roy Choudhury and The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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Key Points
  • One tweet from the Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey set off an international crisis with China for the National Basketball Association.
  • Morey apologized on Twitter over a now-deleted tweet that spoke in support of Hong Kong protesters.
  • Morey's apology underscores the challenges American companies face when they want to do business in China's massive economy, but can't run the risk of saying anything that will upset the country's autocratic government.
  • Thousands of Hong Kongers have for months protested China's rising influence in the city.