The NBA Is Making Its China Problem Worse

Demonstrators at Wednesday’s Wizards game. Photo: Nick Wass/AP

Last Friday, the general manager of the Houston Rockets, Daryl Morey, tweeted a message in support of pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong and set off an international crisis for the NBA. One week later, the league has only managed to make the problem worse.

The NBA’s immediate response to Morey’s tweet, which included calling it “regrettable” and “offensive,” was widely criticized earlier in the week. The shameless genuflecting to the Chinese government was unbecoming of America’s most progressive sports league. But, as Will Leitch wrote, speaking out against China stands to do much more damage to the bottom line of the league and its players than standing against injustices here at home.

The backlash to the NBA’s initial response led commissioner Adam Silver to try again on Tuesday. He put out a more assertive statement sticking up for the right of those associated with the NBA to express “different viewpoints over different issues.” He added: The “NBA will not put itself in a position of regulating what players, employees and team owners say or will not say on these issues. We simply could not operate that way.”

Silver’s statement, though, left out one group of people whose viewpoints the league and its affiliates apparently will try to regulate: the fans. And now that people know the NBA is uncomfortable with pro-Hong Kong messages, they’re bringing them to the NBA.

At Tuesday night’s exhibition game between the 76ers and the Guangzhou Loong Lions at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, two fans were kicked out for chanting “Free Hong Kong.” Earlier in the game they had posters with the same slogan confiscated. The NBA may not have had anything to do with the fans getting booted from the arena — the team does not handle security — but it had everything to do with their demonstration, one of them said.

“The NBA doesn’t want to talk about this,” Sam Wachs, who was kicked out of the game with his wife, told Yahoo! “They want to sweep this under the rug and I want to make that difficult for them.”

Wachs’s story went viral Tuesday night and by Wednesday, he had inspired others. In Washington, D.C., Wizards fan Patrick Hedger says he was kicked out of the game for holding up a sign and yelling “Free Hong Kong” after the Chinese national anthem.

Other fans at the same game, which saw the Wizards also playing host to the Loong Lions, said their “Google Uighurs” signs was confiscated. Uighurs are the predominantly Muslim ethnic group that the Chinese government has subjected to forced labor in reeducation camps.

The Wizards have said the signs were removed in accordance with the arena’s ban on political posters. The Sixers say the fans were removed from Tuesday’s game because other fans complained. And the NBA has distanced itself from what’s happening at its games. But after two consecutive nights of in-arena disruptions, this problem is probably not going away.

And the NBA’s handling of the situation is only making it worse. The Rockets stepped in it again Thursday when a CNN reporter tried to ask star players James Harden and Russell Westbrook about whether the events of this past week would make them hesitant to speak out about non-basketball issues in the future. A team representative immediately shut her down.

Reporter Christina Macfarlane was previously able to get a question in to Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni about the issue, asking him if he had a message for Chinese fans disappointed in the NBA’s handling of the controversy. His answer: “It’s a tough situation, very difficult. Adam Silver speaks for the NBA, I work for the NBA, I go with Adam. Commissioner Silver will do the right thing.”

The NBA Is Making Its China Problem Worse