Despite consequences, NBA boss defends values in China row

Washington (AFP) –


NBA commissioner Adam Silver is ready to accept the consequences for defending freedom of speech, even if supporting those values means losing the riches that Chinese business partnerships have brought the league.

Forty years after the Washington Bullets played exhibition games in Beijing and Shanghai as the first NBA club to visit China, the league and its lucrative relationship with the nation of 1.4 billion people faces its toughest test.

It's only the latest battle over values championed by Silver, the 57-year-old American who replaced David Stern as the NBA's boss in February 2014. He has banned an owner for life for racist remarks and moved an NBA All-Star Game over a law discriminating against the gay and transgender communities.

A socially conscious league whose biggest star players have criticized US President Donald Trump and shunned ceremonial White House visits -- LeBron James famously calling Trump a "bum" in a 2017 tweet -- was thrust into controversy again Friday when Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted: "Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong."

Hong Kong has been rocked by protests since June that were ignited by a now-scrapped plan to allow extraditions of criminal suspects to the mainland but snowballed into a movement calling for more democratic freedoms and police accountability.

Morey's tweet shattered some China sponsorships for the Rockets, retired Chinese star Yao Ming's former club. Chinese television dropped planned telecasts of NBA pre-season games in China.

Early NBA statements on the issue drew fire from US critics as overly capitulating, setting the stage for Silver to settle matters in Tokyo.

"The long-held values of the NBA are to support freedom of expression, and certainly freedom of expression by members of the NBA community," Silver said.

"I understand there are consequences from that exercise of, in essence, his freedom of speech. We will have to live with those consequences.

"It's my hope that for our Chinese fans and our partners in China, they will see those remarks in the context of now a three-decade, if not longer, relationship."

- NBA won't compromise values -

The same week that American television show "South Park" parodied US companies who cave in to Chinese censorship for commercial gain, the NBA was challenged to put its values over its bottom line and stand up to financial backers.

"As a league, we're not willing to compromise those values," Silver said. "I'm sympathetic to our interests here and to our partners who are upset. I don't think it's inconsistent on one hand to be sympathetic to them and at the same time stand by our principles."

Silver stressed he regrets Chinese NBA fans are upset but would not apologize for Morey's tweet.

"I don't come here, either as the commissioner of the NBA or as an American, to tell others how they should run their governments," Silver said. "There are values that are deeply rooted in the DNA of the NBA and that includes freedom of expression for our employees.

"We're not apologizing for Daryl exercising his freedom of expression."

As for having NBA telecasts pulled from Chinese television, Silver said, "It's unfortunate, but if that's the consequences of us adhering to our values, we still feel it's critically important we adhere to those values."

Silver plans to meet with Chinese officials in Shanghai in the next few days "and see if we can find mutual respect for each other's political systems and beliefs. But I'm a realist as well, and I recognize that this issue may not die down so quickly.

"I think one of the things that comes with freedom of expression often is very difficult conversations.

"It's our hope... we can work with our long-time partners and find an accommodation, recognizing we have true differences."

- 'Long time to repair' -

When a video of racist remarks by Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling went public less than three months into his tenure, Silver banned him from the NBA for life four days later and forced him to sell the club.

Silver also moved the 2017 NBA All-Star Game from Charlotte to New Orleans after state lawmakers revoked protections prohibiting discrimination against gay and transgender people.

"We feel this law is inconsistent with the core values of this league," Silver said in 2016. "Our values in terms of equality and inclusion are paramount."

Alibaba co-founder Joe Tsai, a Chinese businessman who became owner of the NBA Brooklyn Nets last month, posted a statement on Facebook to explain China's perspective to US fans.

"The problem is, there are certain topics that are third-rail issues in certain countries," Tsai wrote. "Supporting a separatist movement in a Chinese territory is one of those.

"The hurt this incident has caused will take a long time to repair... I ask that our Chinese fans keep the faith in what the NBA and basketball can do to unite people from all over the world."