The discourse over the NBA’s relationship with China created by a single pro-Hong Kong tweet from Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey continues to rage, but league commissioner Adam Silver has already started to reflect on the events that occurred immediately after Morey hit that fateful “Tweet” button.
During an interview with Good Morning America’s Robin Roberts at the Time 100 Health Summit on Thursday, Silver confirmed that the country’s government and businesses asked that Morey be fired for the since-deleted tweet.
Silver said the league shut down any possibility of that, or any other discipline, happening:
“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.”
The obvious consequence of the NBA refusing to discipline Morey was that what happened to the Rockets — effectively being erased from a country in which it had millions of fans — could go league-wide. Multiple teams are already exploring what they could do in a scenario where the league’s salary cap drops 10 to 15 percent, representing hundreds of millions lost in annual revenue.
Silver said the league is already seeing those consequences with game broadcasts still suspended in China, but also noted the league is willing to cope with whatever happens next:
Silver said the league is “not only willing” to cope with losses of millions in revenues, “but we are. The losses have already been substantial. Our games are not back on the air in China as we speak, and we’ll see what happens next.”
“I don’t know where we go from here,” said Silver in his first U.S. interview about the league’s emerging conflict with China since he returned home from the country. “The financial consequences have been and may continue to be fairly dramatic.”
Funnily enough, had Silver taken this stance — publicly affirming Morey will not be disciplined, saying the league will deal with China’s backlash but will not apologize — in the days immediately after the tweet, he might have saved the NBA from the domestic backlash it experienced over the matter.
The NBA’s initial statement criticized Morey’s tweet, which only said “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong,” as “regrettable” and having “deeply offended” Chinese fans. It evaluated the tweet in an even harsher light in a statement released in Mandarin. That first statement is what caused politicians on both sides of the aisle to condemn the league for acquiescing to an authoritarian government to preserve revenue.
Silver released a second statement days later that did a better job of not throwing Morey under the bus, but the narrative around the league’s treatment of China had already formed.
Players and coaches were asked about the matter and held off from supporting Morey to avoid a similar backlash, just as the NBA had done. And then LeBron James took it a step forward and criticized Morey for not considering the harm certain people could have experienced “not only financially but physically, emotionally, spiritually.”
However, Silver contended Thursday that he didn’t believe the league ever acquiesced to China:
Silver said that the media coverage of the NBA’s response to Morey’s tweet “frankly was confusing to me when I got home [from China]. Only because I had thought we’d taken a principled position. I thought we hadn’t so-called ‘acquiesced’ to the Chinese.”
The NBA’s initial statement last week used the word “regrettable,” which Silver emphasized was describing the reaction of Chinese government officials, business executives and NBA fans in China — not the content of Morey’s tweet itself. “Maybe I was trying too hard to be a diplomat,” Silver said. “I didn’t see it as my role as the commissioner of the NBA to weigh in on the substance of the protest, but to say here’s this platform” for free expression.
Regarding Silver’s point of a principled position, treating Morey’s tweet as something regrettable and offensive when it was a simple show of support for a pro-democracy protest against a government with several reported human rights abuses is absolutely what China wanted. The country’s government clearly preferred Morey be fired to show even speaking out against China can carry consequences overseas, but the entire league declining to support Morey’s relatively tame statement was enough to show the country’s influence.
We’ll see if the NBA’s reputation comes back from that.
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