Daryl Morey On Thin Ice Exposes the NBA’s Shame

When Daryl Morey expressed solidarity for the Hong Kong protests, he inadvertently put his GM job in serious jeopardy. Though his crime was one of empathy, and it was accidental, it isn’t without accountability. Morey is an executive in the Rockets organization, and has been an integral architect of the Rockets system for the past 12 years. He was present when Yao Ming was with the Rockets, and when Ming retired Morey had been the GM for 4 years. His longevity with the organization, and his impact on the organization puts him in a position of influence. Therefore, he must understand the aesthetics.  The cozy relationship the Rockets have with China bestow benefits that the Rockets have monetized.

But just as there are benefits to being China’s favorite NBA team, there is a cost. Normal freedom of speech disguised as social media expression isn’t valued in communist countries who silence and fear free speech. Executives who have Chinese partners have to tread carefully as an American.

Morey is an intelligent mind. That he finds himself in quicksand because of his own lack of discipline is his responsibility.  He should have known the politics between Hong Kong and China. It’s his job to understand the subtleties and nuances.

When Morey tweeted support for his friends in Hong Kong, he was sensitized to those who are being oppressed and are fighting for their rights. While many Americans share Morey’s view, and empathize with the Hong Kong protestors, they don’t have working relationships that create a slippery slope. In this country, we can separate an entertainment vehicle like basketball from the minefield that is politics.  Steve Kerr and LeBron James can express their disgust at Donald Trump. Enes Kanter, a Turkish citizen, can blast the Turkish President as a grotesque dictator. Kanter is not allowed back in Turkey, but in America he has the right to say what he wants.

In fact, the NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has publicly stated he wants employees of the NBA to express their point of view about world events. And yet, the NBA is backing away from the entire Morey mess. They are not supporting him because money is on the line.

It’s one thing to back LeBron James and other athletes wearing We Can’t Breathe tees. The Fraternal Order of Police don’t line the NBA coffers.  But Tencent, the streaming service that shows NBA games in China, is no longer showing Rocket games. For the NBA, serious money is on the line. Their show of support for freedom, and the process of acquiring freedom, is situational. Support really isn’t support if it has to be convenient. In this, the NBA is shameful. Instead of a tired slogan of NBA Cares, how about be the change you want to see in the world.

For those who really don’t understand, Hong Kong and China have a very unique alliance. Hong Kong was once a colony of the British Empire and they transferred it to China in 1997. Hong Kong has a separate government and economic system and the citizens have more rights and autonomy than those who live in mainland China. Because they have their own judiciary and legal system separate from mainland China, they have the right to assembly and free of speech is protected. Those freedoms under the Basic Law expire though in 2047.

The protests began in early summer as a reaction to a proposal that would extradite suspects accused of a crime to mainland China. This was problematic because Hong Kong isn’t a communist haven. Communists are not allowed to run as a party. Thus, suspects being sent to a communist regime escalated fears that critics of China would be silenced, imprisoned in death camps without a fair trial, the subject of human rights abuses. Dissidents, journalists, and activists would be swept up in raids. Although the proposal was withdrawn, the protests have continued, because you can’t unring the bell. The protestors want full democracy and police accountability.

Daryl Morey was looking at one half of the story when he tweeted his support. He was sympathizing with the part of the story that didn’t directly affect him. He was drawn into the drama that is playing out on news film and social media because he has empathy for those wanting freedom. But the other half of the story, mainland China and Morey’s business partners, did not cross his mind. He didn’t consider his position unique. Just like all money is not good money, all critique is not good critique. Particularly when you have something to lose.

This past weekend, the protests became violent after face masks were banned. (No one obeyed the ban; face masks were plentiful in the crowd.) Protestors vandalized the metro system. On Sunday, more violence after police sprayed tear gas into the crowd trying to break up the protests. Some of the violence included smashing storefronts of banks, throwing bricks, leaving graffiti. The police have begun to use bullets, shooting an 18 year old on Tuesday and a 14 year old on Friday. Both survived their injuries. The Chinese view the protests as terrorism and that Morey in his tweet was advocating for terrorism.

After Daryl Morey tweeted his support for his Hong Kong friends his boss, Tilman Fertitta, who owns the Rockets, removed the tweets and as an explanation said the Rockets were not a political organization. It was something to appease the Chinese who were furious at Morey’s tweet. But Americans reading of Fertitta’s explanation was not the same as the Chinese reading of it. Of course, the Rockets are not a political organization. It felt as Fertitta was trying to save a boatload of money at the expense of oppression.

Morey explained, “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.”

Like the perspective that China has money invested in the Rockets and by taking Hong Kong’s side he was agreeing that communist mainland China tortures, silences, oppresses and denies rights to political activists and those who disagree with communist policy. Morey chose a side without understanding he was choosing a side.

Morey tried to clean it up somewhat, as if the damage could be walked back. “My tweets are my own and in no way represent the Rockets or the NBA.”

China is sensitive about the Hong Kong protests, blaming foreigners on encouraging the protests. There have been rallies in support of the protestors in the United Kingdom, France, Canada, Australia and the United States. What the Chinese don’t understand about American freedom of speech is that Morey’s opinion is Morey’s opinion. He is entitled to it. Morey has the right to express himself however he sees fit.

China called Morey’s remarks “improper.”  The Chinese Basketball Association as well as business partners are suspending their relationship with the Rockets. Tencent, the NBA digital rights holder, will no longer stream Rockets games and are offering a switch for fans who paid to see Rockets games. The NBA and Tencent just signed an agreement to expand their partnership into the 2024-25 season. 21 million watched Game 6 of the NBA Finals via Tencent.

The NBA is like that older brother who sees his younger brother in a fight but hides behind the liquor store because he is afraid to get blood on his hands. The NBA is scared of losing money. In CBA labor talks, owners demonize NBA players as being money whores because the owners  look in the mirror at themselves and see exactly the same thing. They have no integrity to lean on anymore. The NBA can have MLK tributes on the King holiday until the cows come home. But King said, “It may well be that we will have to repent in this generation. Not merely for the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and do nothing.”

Give Morey credit. Whether it was intentional or not, he wasn’t one of those people who watch horror and just go about his own privileged life. He said something. But the consequences might be significant. The Chinese consulate in Houston was “shocked” by Morey’s comments. Shocked because he supports freedom? Or shocked that he said so out loud. The consulate is pressing for the Rockets to fire Morey.

And the NBA seems not to mind the punishment of Daryl Morey for money reasons. Shame.  Shame. Shame.