'Disgusting': U.S. politicians call out NBA for 'kowtowing' to China amid Houston Rockets controversy

"Moment of truth for NBA," Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., tweeted. "Will they bow to pressure from repressive, authoritarian govt?"
Image: Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey at a press conference in Texas in 2013.
Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey at a press conference in Texas in 2013.Bob Levey / Getty Images file

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By Allan Smith

Republican and Democratic lawmakers criticized the NBA for "kowtowing" to China amid a controversy stemming from a Houston Rockets executive posting a tweet backing the monthslong protests in Hong Kong.

"Basketball fans and the American people more broadly should have absolutely no doubt about what is happening here: The NBA wants money, and the Communist Party of China is asking them to deny the most basic of human rights," Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., said in a statement Monday. "In response, the NBA issued a statement saying money is the most important thing."

The international kerfuffle began after Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey posted a tweet Friday expressing support for the pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. Morey quickly deleted the tweet and posted a clarification, saying he "did not intend" to offend any Chinese fans, but damage to the league's lucrative relationship with China — a country with billions of dollars invested in the sport — was already done. The NBA's Chinese partners suspended ties with the franchise, Chinese sponsors pulled their money and Chinese TV outlets said they would no longer broadcast Rockets games.

Mike Bass, an NBA spokesman, said in a statement Sunday that Morey's tweet was "regrettable" and "deeply offended" many of the league's Chinese fans. He added that Morey's views did not represent the Rockets or the league, although he suggested Morey had a right to express his view.

"We have great respect for the history and culture of China and hope that sports and the NBA can be used as a unifying force to bridge cultural divides and bring people together," Bass added.

The NBA's Chinese social media account, meanwhile, posted a version of the statement that had several discrepancies, including that Morey's statement was "inappropriate" and "severely hurt the feelings of Chinese fans, prompting Bass to clarify that the statement in English was the official one.

Others with the Rockets and around the league quickly went into damage-control mode. Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta tweeted that Morey "does NOT speak for the" team, which is "NOT a political organization." Rockets' star player James Harden offered an apology, saying "we love China."

Meanwhile, Joseph Tsai, owner of the Brooklyn Nets and a co-founder of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, said it "will take a long time to repair" the damage from Morey's tweet.

In Japan, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said "the economic impact" from Morey's tweet was "already clear." But he offered support for Morey, saying he "is supported in terms of his ability to exercise his freedom of expression."

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., joined the chorus of voices expressing outrage at the NBA's response, tweeting that the league was "throwing" Morey "under the bus to please the Communist Chinese Govt." Rubio also pointed to the league's reputation as the most progressive of the four major U.S. sports leagues — one where its athletes, coaches and executives often speak out on hot button political issues.

"Disgusting," he added. "They allow #China to punish a U.S. citizen for free speech in order to protect NBA’s market access in China. Grotesque."

Rubio addressed an apparent contradiction between his response to the Rockets controversy and his thoughts on President Donald Trump's call for China to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his family. Rubio, along with other Republicans, said Trump wasn't actually serious about that.

"The brave #BlueCheckBrigade has trouble distinguishing between what is inappropriate & what is dangerous," Rubio wrote. "POTUS asking #China to investigate Biden is wrong, but it isn’t going to happen. China regulating speech in America is dangerous & is actually happening via @NBA."

The Rockets, a franchise for which Chinese superstar Yao Ming once played, are one of the league's most popular teams in China.

Chinese state media has cast the Hong Kong protesters as rioters amid months of clashes which began when proposed legislation would have allowed China to extradite suspects in Hong Kong to the mainland. Hong Kong's leader pledged last month to withdraw the legislation.

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., tweeted that with the Rockets under pressure from China to fire Morey, the ordeal will prove to be a "moment of truth for" the league.

"Will they bow to pressure from repressive, authoritarian govt?" he tweeted.

Hawley, in a letter to Silver on Monday, called on the NBA and its owners to "reverse course immediately, apologize to Mr. Morey and cancel all exhibition games in China pending a peaceful resolution to the crisis in Hong Kong."

Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., tweeted that it was "clear" the NBA "is more interested in money than human rights."

"The NBA is kowtowing to Beijing to protect their bottom line and disavowing those with the temerity to #standwithHongKong," he added. "Shameful!"

Scott also released a statement requesting a meeting with Silver to discuss the NBA's involvement with China.

"As Americans, it is our duty to stand together against injustice, and that means standing up to Communist China and President Xi as he violates the rights guaranteed under the 1997 handover of Hong Kong," Scott said.

“We must all put human rights above profit. And that means standing with Hong Kong," he continued.

And Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, wrote he was "proud" to see Morey's tweet, adding that the league, "in pursuit of big" money, was "shamefully retreating."

Democrats expressed dismay over the episode, as well. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., tweeted: "No one should implement a gag rule on Americans speaking out for freedom."

Former Housing Secretary Julián Castro — a 2020 presidential contender — tweeted that China "is using its economic power to silence critics — even those in the U.S."

Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang tweeted that China "banning the Rockets is a terrible move."

Associated Press contributed.