What can other sports learn from the Morey-China controversy?
Even non-basketball fans might have noticed the recent controversy involving the NBA in China.
The sport’s most successful league has been frantically trying to undo the damage caused in its biggest overseas market after Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey retweeted a message of support for anti-government protesters in Hong Kong.
He could not have imagined that the seven words it contained would result in China Central Television (CCTV) halting its broadcasts of NBA pre-season games and all Chinese sponsors suspending their agreements with the NBA.
The tempest was sparked when Morey used Twitter to shared a photo with the slogan ‘Fight for Freedom, Stand with Hong Kong’, which seemed to support the recent violent demonstrations in the special administrative region that officially became part of China in 1997.
He deleted the tweet an hour later, however, screenshots of it had already spread rapidly in China and irritated government and sports officials plus many Chinese people. Neither Morey himself nor the NBA acted swiftly enough to defuse the tensions, and 28 hours later, the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) suspended all co-operation with Houston Rockets.
Two days after his controversial retweet, Morey used Twitter to insist that he had been simply voicing his own thoughts which in no way represented the Rockets or the NBA, but his words did not work.
At the same time, NBA president Adam Silver flew to Shanghai and met with his CBA counterpart Yao Ming, who as a player spent nine seasons with the Houston Rockets.
Silver said that the NBA would not apologise for Morey’s words as it values the right of having freedom of expression. However, this did nothing to assuage the anger felt in China, as Yao Ming made clear.
Why did people in China react so strongly to Morey’s post? What the NBA seemingly failed to understand is that it referred to separatism. Americans underestimate the significance in China of this issue, which can be compared to the sensitivities surround issues of race in the United States.
So whatever the NBA did – or did not – say in responding to the dispute, it had already entered into a forbidden zone of Chinese culture and both the Houston Rockets and NBA were going to made to pay for it.
With a population of 1.4bn, and a growing affluent middle class, many professional sports leagues around the world consider that China either is, or has the potential to become, their most important overseas market.
But in order to really succeed in developing it as a lucrative source of income, foreign teams, clubs, and leagues need to be aware of the areas of Chinese society and politics where they should tread lightly, lest a seemingly negligible thing such as a tweet might spark a huge loss.
Both the Chinese government and people have an adverse reaction to foreigners supporters separatism in any part of China. This stems in part from the fact that the country has suffered from numerous foreign invasions since the 19th century and spent more than 100 years to repel them.
Consequently, the whole notion of the integrity of their nation and its borders is extremely important to Chinese people, and that is why separatism is a red line that cannot be crossed by anyone.
The one thing that is terribly misunderstood, and often ignored, by the western press and those critical of China is that 1.4 billion Chinese citizens stand united when it comes to the territorial integrity of China and the country’s sovereignty. This issue is non-negotiable.
– Brookyn Nets owner Joseph Tsai
The owner of another NBA team, Joseph Tsai of the Brooklyn Nets, explained the problem in an open letter: separatism is a third-rail issue in China.
“The one thing that is terribly misunderstood, and often ignored, by the western press and those critical of China is that 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.”
So this means that foreign companies will make trouble for themselves if they treat the likes of Hong Kong, Macau or Tibet as singular regions. Doing so risks huge negative effects in their dealings with China and Chinese companies and organisations, even where good relations existed previously.
Whether people in the West believe it is right or wrong, any business, league or individual who wants to make profits in China must learn to stay silent on Chinese domestic affairs.
As the Chinese government insists on the principle of non interference in the internal affairs of other countries, so it expects those countries to reciprocate and avoid any actions detrimental to China or its citizens, or which challenge its status as an independent country.
In short, the NBA stands accused of not respecting China or its people, and as one influential basketball commentator said: “You cannot earn money from China but show no respect to your Chinese consumers.”
People have compared this current controversy with the one sparked in the NBA five years ago when Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling was fined $2.5m and banned for life from the league for racist comments.
Nobody supported Sterling’s “freedom of expression” when his words offended others, and that is why Chinese NBA supporters do not agree with the idea that freedom of speech can excuse Morey’s post
Nobody supported Sterling’s “freedom of expression” when his words offended others, and that is why Chinese NBA supporters do not agree with the idea that freedom of speech can excuse Morey’s post. The NBA did not react with sufficient measures in its aftermath, and thus its many Chinese fans felt offended.
Of course, one league’s mishap is another’s opportunity, and whilst the NBA continues to suffer from the fall-out of the Morey episode, European football and basketball leagues are receiving more attention than before.