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The international uproar ignited by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey’s now deleted, pro-democracy Hong Kong tweet has again raised the question of how much Western companies have to censor to appease the Asian powerhouse.
Released on October 4, the tweet led to Chinese state-run television broadcaster CCTV refusing to broadcast two National Basketball Association (NBA) pre-season games in Shanghai and Shenzhen. The tweet also caused several Chinese sponsors to distance themselves from the NBA. As a result, the NBA has reportedly lost all its major Chinese sponsors. This includes a local joint venture of Nissan Motor Co., China’s largest sportswear manufacturer, the nation’s second-largest dairy company, and a smartphone brand.
Aside from the sponsorships, China remains the largest market for the NBA outside of the US. A multi-billion-dollar marriage tied up in merchandise sales, media rights, and streaming profits.
On October 17, NBA commissioner Adam Silver issued a public statement supporting his employees’ right to freedom of speech. Silver stated that “values of equality, respect, and freedom of expression have long defined the NBA – and will continue to do so. As an American-based basketball league operating globally, among our greatest contributions are these values of the game.”
Silver also claims that China requested the NBA fire Morey over the contentious tweet. “We made clear that we were being asked to fire him, by the Chinese government, by the parties we dealt with, government, and business,” Silver said. “We said there’s no chance that’s happening. There’s no chance we’ll even discipline him.”
However, China has denied these allegations. Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said the Chinese government “has never made this kind of request” and that “[they] especially went to the relevant departments to check on this claim.”
A day after denying the termination request, CCTV stated that Silver had “defamed” China and had “problems in his character.” “To please some American politicians, Silver has fabricated lies out of nothing and has sought to paint China as unforgiving.”
Just as the international incident began to recede, Lebron James reignited public fury. After returning from two high profile games in Shanghai and Shenzhen, James, who is an outspoken critic of President Trump, police violence and other prominent issues, said that Morey’s tweet “wasn’t educated on the situation.” He elaborated further, explaining that Morey’s statement endangered people – “not only financially, but physically. Emotionally. Spiritually.”
While James’ tweet was welcomed with enthusiasm on the mainland, others remain outraged.
Republican senator Ben Sasse accused James of “parroting communist propaganda.”
His comments were mocked in a South Park episode and became the target of a Hong Kong rally last week. Popular Australian muralist also released this photo of James next to a Winnie the Pooh version of President Xi.
James has defended himself in response to the intense backlash, stating that his comments were not related to the substance of Morey’s tweet, but rather the ramifications of it. James has also stated that he will not speak further about the issue going forward.
As one of the most popular players in the association, James has a lifetime endorsement deal with Nike that may reportedly pay him more than $1 billion. During the 2019 fiscal year ending May, Nike earned $6.2 billion of revenue from sales from Greater China.
Jason Whitlock, sports journalist and controversial media figure, has asserted that James supports China’s interests rather than his own country’s. David West, NBA player of 15 years and current Chief Operating Officer (COO) of the Historical Basketball League, slammed Whitlock’s comments and defended James, asserting that he was creating a “false narrative” leading people to “war under false pretenses.”
“There’s a lot of intellectual laziness that’s going into this… We’ve dumbed down the conversation to ‘LeBron is pro-China and he won’t speak out on issues in Hong Kong,’” West added.