NBA’s Chinese business interests clash with free speech in Hong Kong tweet controversy

AMNA NAWAZ: There’s a firestorm of reaction
to how the NBA is handling a conflict between its business in China and its approach toward
free speech and human rights. It started with a tweet from Houston Rockets
general manager Daryl Morey that read — quote — “Fight for freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.” That tweet prompted swift backlash from the
Chinese government and Chinese business partners, who pulled their money from the Rockets. Now, Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta tweeted
that Morey didn’t speak on behalf of the team. The NBA, which has spent years trying to develop
its business in China, called Morey’s tweet regrettable. Morey went on to delete that original tweet
and posted an apology, saying — quote — “I didn’t intend my tweet to cause any offense
to Rockets fans and friends of mine in China.” Mike Pesca is the host of “Slate” magazine’s
podcast “The Gist” and author of “Upon Further Review: The Greatest What-Ifs in Sports History.” And he joins me now. Mike Pesca, welcome to the “NewsHour.” Let’s start with that NBA statement. You tweeted, calling it cowardly. Adam Silver is obviously being very careful
with the language he’s using. Why do you think the NBA is reacting the way
that they are? MIKE PESCA, Author, “Upon Further Review:
The Greatest What-Ifs in Sports History”: Well, yes, it’s cowardly and it’s shocking
because, so far, Adam Silver in his tenure as commissioner has been progressive, has
been on the right side of issues, has listened to the concerns of the players, and I would
also say, by extension, employees like Daryl Morey. There is — the answer is, there’s so much
money is at stake. It’s not just the perception of, oh, maybe
there are potential customers that we can’t offend if we take this or that social or political
stance that is maybe dividing America. When it comes to China, NBA China, which is
the branded entity, is worth, according to an interview in “Forbes,” $4 billion. Tencent, which is the streaming service, paid
$1.5 billion to stream NBA games over the next five years. And I have to tell you, if you look at the
market, 1.4 billion Chinese potential customers means that game six of the NBA Finals last
year was actually better watched in China than in the United States. They don’t have as much purchasing power,
but this isn’t just, to him, some hypothetical, oh, there could be money on the line or there
might be some money on the line. There is a significant amount of money. That said, the response, the response by ownership
and, I think, the shock and shameful response by Adam Silver just left a lot of jaws on
the ground, given really the de minimis statement of support for these Hong Kong protesters
that Daryl Morey tweeted. AMNA NAWAZ: Let me ask you about the response
from the players too. It’s not rare for us to see NBA Players speaking
out on issues that matter to them. They often wear protester social justice T-shirts during game warmups. LeBron James and Steph Curry are among the
most vocal critics of President Trump. Enes Kanter has too has been — a member of
the Boston Celtics now, who is of Turkish origin, has been a vocal critic of Turkish
President Erdogan. We haven’t really seen much of a response
from the players. Do you think that there has been a chilling
effect, to some degree, from this reaction? MIKE PESCA: Well, we did see James Harden,
possibly the best player in the NBA, certainly the best player on the Houston Rockets, essentially
apologize. And we have also seen not just from players,
but an owner, a Chinese — well, a Canadian-Chinese owner of the New Jersey — the — I’m sorry
— the Brooklyn Nets, Joe Tsai, he put out a statement that tried to explain how hurtful
Daryl Morey’s tweet was. But I just can’t quite take that at face value,
because he did things like talk about Hong Kong being a separatist movement. I mean, these are Chinese people asking for
human rights, the same kind of First Amendment rights or due process rights that Americans
have. And to bring it back to your questions about
why is there this disconnect between when were players protest or make a statement about
American issues and Daryl Morey making a pretty — a pretty gentle statement or obvious statement
about Hong Kong, it just shows the extreme sensitivities of China. It’s the difference, what if you make a criticism
in a free society, like the United States, or a criticism of an autocratic society for
being autocratic, like China? And I know China gives the NBA A lot of money,
but it comes at a cost. We’re seeing the cost. AMNA NAWAZ: So, Mike, very briefly — we have
less than a minute left. But how does the NBA move forward here? Obviously, they have a huge potential market,
already a huge existing market in China. We heard Adam Silver qualify his remarks today
a little bit to say that Daryl Morey is supported in terms of his ability to exercise his freedom
of expression. Can they continue to walk that line? MIKE PESCA: Well, I think what Adam Silver
wants to do is make it go away. I think that he doesn’t want the Rockets to
fire really one of the great G.M.s in the sport and a very smart person and a person
whose influence goes beyond the sport. So that’s number one. And, number two, I think Adam Silver will
say the right — try to say the right things for both his constituencies, the U.S. audience
and the Chinese audience. Perhaps he was surprised by the backlash,
but he really shouldn’t have been, because what Daryl Morey did was, as I have said so
many times here, pretty de minimis. And if you can’t make a stance between — or
if you think that it’s a true controversy between the repressive regime of China and
what the protesters are standing for, you don’t know the real meaning of controversy,
I’d say. AMNA NAWAZ: Mike Pesca, he’s the host of the
“Slate” podcast “The Gist.” Thanks very much for your time. MIKE PESCA: You’re welcome.

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