One tweet. Seven words — that were deleted shortly after. But by then, the world’s most popular basketball league, NBA had been thrown into a crisis that no one could ever imagine or anticipate how to get out of.
It has been more than a week now, and the problem is getting worse day by day, and no one knows how to douse this fire. Every step that the NBA officials are planning has been backfiring resulting in more embarrassment and more damage to the league.
It all began on Sunday, when the general manager of the Houston Rockets, Daryl Morey published a tweet voicing his support for pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. The tweet included an image bearing the words: “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong.”
Daryl Morey deleted the tweet in some time but it was already too late. China was angry.
The anti-government protests in Hong Kong and the strong measures taken by the Chinese government to curb these demonstrations have been going on for quite some time now. And though the protests are happening in Hong Kong, people in China are keeping an eye on every development happening in this regard. And people who want to do business in China or with the Chinese dare not take any stand against China.
Not many people are aware that basketball is the most watched sport in China. The fact that it is more popular with the rich in the country is just adding to the woes of NBA. In an interview last year, the league’s deputy commissioner, Mark Tatum revealed that NBA China – which manages everything NBA-related in the country – was worth more than $4 billion and this number is increasing with every day.
So now, let’s review what happened after that dreaded tweet by Daryl Morey. First, the Chinese government definitely did not appreciate that tweet. And by extension, the Chinese companies who partnered with the NBA didn’t welcome it either. Every last one of them responded by suspending their ties to the league.
Basically the entire market of nearly $4 billion dollars of NBA in China has gone for a toss. We all know how the NBA league is trying to capture the Asian market. For the first time ever, NBA games were organised in Mumbai. This was part of the same strategy that the NBA has been adopting for quite some years. Before the main games start in America, there are some pre-season games that are played in different countries to bring the league closer to the people. Just that this time, it has been just the opposite.
The timing was particularly bad because some NBA teams, including the Rockets, were in Asia to play pre-season games. China’s state broadcaster immediately cancelled its plans to broadcast those games, as did Tencent Sports, the company that streams them online.
The Chinese Basketball Association, whose chairman is former Rockets star, Yao Ming announced it was ending its co-operation with the team.
And China’s consulate general in Houston pointedly urged the NBA to “correct the mistakes”. All of this combined to form a swift and severe economic punishment, which was, by any sane measure, an utterly absurd response to one tweet. But we, of all people, should know how in-vogue nationalism is today.
The far bigger problem was NBA’s response. In one statement, written in English, the NBA said it regretted Mr Morey’s remarks and he did not represent the league or the Rockets.
Then there was the other statement, written in Chinese. “We are extremely disappointed in the inappropriate remarks made by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey,” it said. Mr Morey himself tweeted an apology of sorts, saying he’d had a chance to “hear and consider other perspectives” on Hong Kong since his original post.
Incredibly, the NBA also started to kick fans out of pre-season games for bringing along signs supportive of the Hong Kong protesters. The NBA is not an organisation that typically stops its employees from sharing their political views. In fact, it usually encourages freedom of expression. Coaches Gregg Popovitch and Steve Kerr have both been vocal critics of Donald Trump. So have certain players, such as Golden State superstar Steph Curry. None of those guys were willing to stick up for Mr Morey this week. “This situation has a huge weight and gravity to it, and there are some things that need to be sorted out, but I just don’t know enough about Chinese history and how that’s influenced modern society today,” Curry said when he was asked about the controversy.
That failed to stop the backlash in China, and created an entirely new one back home in the United States. Politicians accused the NBA of sacrificing its principles for money. When a reporter asked President Donald Trump if he was OK with the Chinese government pressuring the NBA over Hong Kong, Trump replied, “They have to work out their own situation. The NBA is – they know what they’re doing. But I watch the way that Kerr and Popovich and some of the others were pandering to China, and yet to our country they don’t. It’s like they don’t respect it.”
NBA is not alone here. It is merely the latest business to face an increasingly common and insidious dilemma – to stand up for its principles, or to sacrifice those principles to keep China happy, in pursuit of profit.
This week Apple removed the app HKMapLive, which had been used by Hong Kong protesters to track police activity, claiming it violated their “guidelines and local laws”. The real reason? China’s state-owned newspaper, The People’s Daily had been criticising the app.
The gaming company Activision Blizzard banned professional player Chung Ng Wai from its tournaments after he voiced support for the Hong Kong demonstrators in a postgame interview. ESPN employees received an internal memo barring them from referencing Chinese politics when talking about the NBA controversy. Multiple companies, including a number of airlines, have apologised for using “incorrect” maps of China which did not list Taiwan as part of the country. Mercedes-Benz apologised for posting an Instagram photo with a quote from the Dalai Lama. Nike removed Rockets merchandise from its Chinese stores after Mr Morey’s tweet. Paramount Pictures got rid of the Taiwanese flag on Tom Cruise’s jacket in the trailer for Top Gun: Maverick.
There is no doubt that this entire incident is going to be a big learning lesson for everyone who has anything to do with China. And the message is loud and clear, inner voice has no voice in business.