A bipartisan group of lawmakers said Wednesday they were deeply concerned that the NBA had kowtowed to China after the organization apologized for an executive’s comments supporting protestors in Hong Kong.
“It is outrageous that the NBA has caved to Chinese government demands for contrition,” the group, which included Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.), Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.), Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), wrote in a letter addressed to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. “NBA players have a rich history of speaking out on sensitive topics of social justice and human rights inside the United States, and the NBA takes pride in defending their right to do so.”
“Yet while it is easy to defend freedom of speech when it costs you nothing, equivocating when profits are at stake is a betrayal of fundamental American values.”
The letter was also signed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.), Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas).
The lawmakers’ statement comes less than a week after the Houston Rockets’ general manager, Daryl Morey, posted a tweet in support of the democracy protests in Hong Kong, reading: “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong.” The short-lived note prompted widespread anger in mainland China, where Communist Party leaders have ignited nationalist sentiment to encourage opposition to demonstrations related to Hong Kong’s autonomy.
Morey quickly deleted the message and issued an apology, but within days China’s state broadcaster said it would stop showing Rockets games in the country and sponsors began suspending their contracts with the NBA. The team has been wildly popular in China, in large part because it drafted Yao Ming in 2002. The Washington Post noted that the NBA has since become the country’s most popular sports league.
The NBA, which makes hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenue in China, scrambled to contain the fallout. In a statement, the league said it recognized “that the views expressed by Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey have deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China, which is regrettable.”
A separate message in Chinese went further, saying the NBA was “extremely disappointed” in Morey’s “inappropriate remarks.”
The response prompted its own backlash in the U.S., and lawmakers quickly lambasted the NBA for failing to defend free speech. Many called out Silver, the league’s commissioner, for trying to have it both ways while attempting to batten down the organization’s business interests.
The lawmakers on Wednesday urged the NBA to take action to defend the rights of its players and staff, including steps to support their ability to express their opinions “no matter the economic consequences.” They also urged Silver to call China’s bluff and refuse to air NBA activities in the country until government-owned broadcasters end their own boycott.
“Your statements come at a time when we would hope to see Americans standing up and speaking out in defense of the rights of the people of Hong Kong,” the lawmakers wrote. “You have more power to take a stand than most of the Chinese government’s targets and should have the courage and integrity to use it.”
Read the full letter below: