In Silencing Daryl Morey, The NBA Spits On Its Own Activist Legacy

On Friday, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey sparked, excuse my language, a shit storm with a since-deleted Tweet offering support for the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.

An image with the text “Fight for Freedom. Stand For Hong Kong”. The Hong Kong protests have been ongoing over the past months, with citizens of the semi-autonomous city objecting to the Chinese “Fugitive Offenders amendment bill”; a law they fear will undermine the city’s ability to self-govern, subjecting them to the jurisdiction of the People’s Republic.

As the Houston Rockets are one of the most popular NBA franchises in China, thanks to Yao Ming, Morey spawned a huge controversy; with league officials, Chinese businessmen, and even Brooklyn Nets owner Joseph Tsai, an executive with Chinese tech giant Alibaba, weighing in to mitigate the “damage” they felt Morey had done. In his statement, Tsai wrote “1.4 billion
Chinese citizens stand united when it comes to the territorial integrity of China and the country’s sovereignty over her homeland. This issue is non-negotiable.” I wonder if Tsai was counting the many Chinese nationals being kept as political prisoners in that tally of over a billion people standing completely united over a single issue, or if he was counting his childhood neighbors in the independent Republic of China on the island of Taiwan, where Tsai himself grew up after his father fled the People’s Republic.

The league eventually followed Tsai’s lead, releasing their own statement; that Morey tweets do not “represent the Rockets or NBA, the values of the league”. As MSNBC’s Ben Rhodes points out in the above Tweet, the NBA have accidentally written a striking condemnation on how far from the path of progress the league has wandered. The NBA has a firm heritage of social activism and open political discourse, from legends like Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to more recent superstars like LeBron James and Stephen Curry; even to executives and coaches like Steve Kerr, Gregg Popovich, and now, Daryl Morey. Where the NFL has squashed political conversations, most notably in black balling Colin Kaepernick, the NBA has historically stood apart as the American sports organization that has allowed its members to use their platform to express their beliefs and advocate for change.

On Sunday, Daryl Morey released a statement over Twitter apologizing for his earlier remarks, after The Ringer’s John Gonzalez reported “that Rockets ownership has debated Morey’s employment status and whether to replace him”. It is clear to me that Morey’s apology was prompted by his employment status being put in jeopardy, and by pressure from Rockets and league brass. It is also obvious to me that the league has taken the position they have not only to appease the Chinese government and the league’s Chinese partners; but also to specifically appease Joseph Tsai, who has just made a major investment in a historically money-losing NBA franchise with a high potential for profitability. What kind of league is this, where executives of a team on the other side of the country need to conform to the opinions of a single billionaire owner who stands with one of the most oppressive, imperialist governments on Earth? I find myself questioning where the NBA’s refusal to allow its constituents to criticize China ends. If Daryl Morey cannot speak in support of protests in Hong Kong, would a Muslim NBA player or executive be silenced upon speaking out on the forced “relocation and reeducation” of China’s 11 million Uighur Muslims, 1 in 10 of whom have been locked behind bars as part of the Communist Party’s fight against “terrorism and separatism”?

By forcing Daryl Morey to apologize, the NBA and the Houston Rockets have spit in the face of the league’s activist legacy and, contrary to the league’s statement, have chosen money over the “values” the league claims to represent. As SB Nation’s Tom Ziller pointed out, the league’s response to the Hong Kong debacle is particularly jarring when compared to league commissioner Adam Silver’s statement earlier this year on player’s opposing the Trump administration. Then, Silver said, “There’s a history to activism in this league certainly going back to Bill Russell and that generation of players…We’re proud of the fact our players demonstrate to people globally that they are multidimensional. They are not just ball players, they have views about the society around them.” Where is this commitment to the league’s activist history now? Does it only extend to domestic issues, or does it only extend to issues where the league doesn’t stand to lose money? I recognize that it is the mission of the league office to grow the league financially and spread basketball worldwide, and that China is one of the largest prospective basketball markets in the world. However, I must question whether this is worth abandoning the legacy of free speech and open discourse that defines the NBA, its players, its executives, and its fans. I must question whether growing the league is worth selling its soul.

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