Hong Kong protests spark free speech controversy

Sebastian Gamboa, Courier Staff

When Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey tweeted out an image in support of the Hong Kong protesters, controversy erupted. With China’s oppressive habits of silencing any and all who speak or act out in opposition, their reaction was swift. Both the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) and Chinese media company Tencent immediately cut their ties with the Houston Rockets. Interestingly enough, the president of the CBA is Yao Ming, who spent his NBA career with the Rockets, meaning he turned his back on his former team.

Additionally, it was announced that NBA preseason games would not be streamed in China in reaction to the tweet. All of this is significant because of the large audience the NBA has in China. According to figures from Tencent, 490 million people streamed NBA games in China. At around half a billion, that figure makes up around a third of China’s overall population.

There were many reactions to the situation from all over the country. Unsurprisingly, NBA players came out to defend their money. James Harden of the Rockets stood next to his teammate Russell Westbrook and said to reporters “[China] we love you” and also stated “we love everything they are about”.

This elicited many negative reactions. Many believe that this is just an example of an NBA player feeling out to defend their money even when it comes from defending an oppressive communist regime bent on silencing opposition and cries for freedom.

Another player who spoke even more about the incident was LeBron James. James said that Morey was “misinformed” and “not educated” on the Hong Kong situation. He also stated that “so many people could have been harmed, not only financially but physically, emotionally, spiritually”.

These comments were met with heavy criticism accusing James of hypocrisy as when James has spoken out on social justice issues he has been told things like “shut up and dribble” to which he rightfully defends himself. Only now, he is the one seemingly discouraging someone in the sports industry from speaking their opinions. His comments regarding the supposed financial, physical, emotional and spiritual damages have also been taken poorly. These comments seem to be drenched in privileged faux-intellectualism of a man who sold his character for red money. It is shameful that James, a bastion for free speech for those in the public view, as well as being the face of the NBA would betray his country and his own beliefs to protect his financial prospects.

One final section from the NBA was that of commissioner Adam Silver. Silver has made an attempt to handle this situation delicately without abandoning members of his league while also protecting business relationships with China. However, he made it clear that he was asked by China to fire Morey for his tweet but is refusing to even discipline him at all stating “There’s no chance we’ll even discipline him.”

Silver’s comments set a very encouraging precedent for the future as members of the NBA, both management and players, can feel secure in exercising their rights as United States citizens to speak freely without censorship.

There was also quite the encouraging buzz in the political world over the NBA/ China clash. Members of both parties came out in support of Morey and condemnation against the players who disavowed Morey and his comments. Republican Sen. Ted Cruz from Texas said, “[LeBron James is] kissing up to murderers” also posting a video on his Twitter saying that Morey’s Tweet was “true.”

Across the aisle, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer tweeted out in support of Morey stating “No one should implement a gag order on Americans speaking out for freedom.” Additionally, Democratic hopefuls for the 2020 primary also came out in support of Morey and in denunciation of China. Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren posted “the NBA chose its pocketbook over principles” and “We should all be speaking out in support of those protesting for their rights.” Social media star candidate Andrew Yang tweeted that China made a “terrible move” in banning the NBA games from steaming and finally, former HUD Secretary and current 2020 Democratic Primary candidate Julian Castro tweeted that we should not allow American citizens to be “bullied by an authoritarian government.”

With this bipartisan agreement regarding the NBA/ China conflict it will be interesting to see further response by the NBA and their players, as well as how China will react and if they will continue to carry through on punishing the NBA for Morey’s comments. Finally, it is also disheartening to see such blatant self-interest on the part of certain NBA players.