Chinese state television said on Tuesday it would not air NBA exhibition games played in the country this week, heaping pressure on the U.S. basketball league after a tweet by a Houston Rockets executive backing protests in Hong Kong.
Rockets general manager Daryl Morey apologized on Monday for any hurt caused by the tweet, which he quickly deleted over the weekend.
But China’s government, fans, and the team’s partners were not mollified, resulting in loss of sponsors and broadcasts in the world’s second-largest economy and an important National Basketball Association (NBA) market.
However, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver spoke up for freedom of speech saying it was not up to the NBA to regulate what players, employees and team owners said, nor to adjudicate differences between people around the world.
CCTV state television said it strongly opposed Silver’s support of Morey. Any comments that challenged a country’s sovereignty and social stability were “not within the scope of freedom of speech”, CCTV said, adding it was reviewing its relationship with the NBA.
Months of anti-government protests in Chinese-ruled Hong Kong have angered Beijing, which has accused Western governments of stirring up the anti-China sentiment. China rejects outside intervention in Hong Kong as interference.
Chinese smartphone maker Vivo, a key sponsor for the exhibition games in China, announced on Tuesday it was suspending all ties with the NBA, underscoring the strength of the backlash in the country.
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Chinese sportswear maker ANTA Sports Products Ltd, which has endorsement contracts with several NBA players including Golden State Warriors guard Klay Thompson and Boston Celtics forward Gordon Hayward, also said on Tuesday it was halting contract renewal negotiations with the league.
The NBA had earlier issued a statement saying it regretted Morey’s remarks, drawing criticism from U.S. lawmakers.
But Silver, in Japan for an exhibition game, defended Morey’s right to express his opinions.“It is inevitable that people around the world – including from America and China – will have different viewpoints over different issues,” Silver said in a statement. “It is not the role of the NBA to adjudicate those differences.”
Silver later told a news conference in Japan, where he is attending an exhibition game, that the NBA was not apologizing for Morey “expressing his freedom of expression”.
“I regret, having communicated directly with many friends in China, that so many people are upset, including millions and millions of our fans,” Silver said. The league has worked for years to cultivate the Chinese market and regularly plays exhibition games there. Its top stars, including Rockets, guard James Harden, frequently visit to meet fans and take part in promotions with sponsors.
“As a league, we are not willing to compromise those values,” Silver said, referring to freedom of expression. “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 said the league also supported Brooklyn Nets owner and Alibaba Group co-founder Joseph Tsai, who issued a lengthy statement criticizing Morey’s tweet.