Amid growing backlash against NBA owners for siding with deep-pocketed Beijing powerbrokers over one of their own employees – who was rebuked for a pro-Hong Kong protest tweet – the league's commissioner released a statement Tuesday morning seeking to clarify the NBA's relationship with the communist country.
The statement from Adam Silver, released before a news conference in Tokyo, said the league “will not put itself in a position of regulating what players, employees and team owners say or will not say on these issues” — a popular sentiment, but one that appeared at odds with the actions of high-ranking NBA leaders in the aftermath of Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey tweeting about Hong Kong, the autonomous Chinese territory in the middle of contentious demonstrations over a host of human rights issues.
“It is inevitable that people around the world – including from America and China – will have different viewpoints over different issues,” Silver said in the statement. “It is not the role of the NBA to adjudicate those differences.”
Silver added: “This is about far more than growing our business...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, who's previously been lauded for his progressive stewardship of the NBA, said he still plans to go to China on Wednesday in advance of preseason games there between the Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets.
The current flap arose after Morey tweeted a picture of a slogan reading “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.” But Morey deleted the tweet after significant blowback — including a tweet from Rockets owner Tillman Fertitta saying Morey "does NOT speak for" the team. Morey later backtracked on his advocacy.
“I did not intend my tweet to cause any offense to Rockets fans and friends of mine in China,” he wrote. “I was merely voicing one thought, based on one interpretation, of one complicated event. I have had a lot of opportunity since that tweet to hear and consider other perspectives.”
He added: “I have always appreciated the significant support our Chinese fans and sponsors have provided and I would hope that those who are upset will know that offending or misunderstanding them was not my intention. My tweets are my own and in no way represent the Rockets or the NBA.”
Morey's initial tweet led to several Chinese sportswear brands suspending ties with the Rockets. The Chinese Basketball Association also canceled a preseason event involving the Rockets’ G-League affiliate, according to The Athletic.
Silver said later at a press conference the league was “apologetic” over the outcome, but was “not apologizing for Daryl exercising his freedom of speech," though Morey appeared to do that himself in his damage-control tweet. Silver added that he “regrets” how so many Chinese people and NBA fans were upset by Morey's message.
Geng Shuang, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, said ordinary people have already expressed their position over the tweet.
“How can it be possible to carry out exchanges and cooperation with China without knowing China's public opinion?” Geng asked. “[The] NBA's cooperation with China has been going on for quite a long time, so what should be said and what should be done, they know best.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.