Sen. Elizabeth Warren joined a chorus of fellow senators from across the political spectrum Monday, admonishing the NBA for choosing “its pocketbook over its principles” following a tweet from Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey that elicited a backlash from China.
Morey, a former Celtics executive and co-founder of the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, posted an image Friday on Twitter expressing support for Hong Kong, where pro-democracy demonstrators have mounted a months-long campaign of disruptive protests — triggered by a bill that would have allowed certain people charged with crimes to be extradited to China — against the authoritarian Chinese government’s influence in the semi-autonomous region.
Morey’s since-deleted post was simple — “Fight for freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.” — but it elicited a forceful and sweeping condemnation from Chinese basketball fans. The Chinese Basketball Association and Tencent Sports, which televises the NBA in China, both announced over the weekend that they were cutting ties with the Rockets, which has been one most popular NBA teams in China, since it drafted Yao Ming in 2002. The CBA also canceled two planned exhibition games in China involving the Rockets’ G League team and the owner of the Rockets tweeted that Morey “does NOT speak for the Houston Rockets.”
In a statement Sunday, the NBA — which recently signed a $1.5 billion broadcasting deal with Tencent — called Morey’s tweet “regrettable. While reaffirming his rights to free expression, the statement said that Morey’s words had “deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China,” where the government tightly censors political speech. There was even briefly speculation that Morey might be fired, though neither the Rockets nor NBA handed down any form of discipline.
Still, given the league’s financial stake in the Chinese market, the less-than-supportive response was interpreted — and criticized — by both Democratic and Republican elected officials as the NBA seeking to appease a foreign partner at the expense of free expression.
“China is trying to use its market power to silence free speech and criticism of its conduct,” Warren tweeted Monday afternoon. “In response, the NBA chose its pocketbook over its principles—and our values. We should all be speaking out in support of those protesting for their rights.”
China is trying to use its market power to silence free speech and criticism of its conduct. In response, the NBA chose its pocketbook over its principles—and our values. We should all be speaking out in support of those protesting for their rights. https://t.co/IRiIY1cgDg
— Elizabeth Warren (@ewarren) October 7, 2019
Sen. Ed Markey, a fellow Massachusetts Democrat, also alluded to the situation Monday, calling it “unacceptable to silence those speaking out for freedom of expression in Hong Kong, or anyone in America supporting them.”
It’s unacceptable to silence those speaking out for freedom of expression in Hong Kong, or anyone in America supporting them. Proud to stand with the Hongkongers who are bravely asserting their freedom. I’ll continue to raise up their voices in Congress. https://t.co/CKyjFaJalT
— Ed Markey (@SenMarkey) October 7, 2019
Warren (who is — or, at least, was — a fan of the Rockets) wasn’t the only presidential candidate to weigh in. Her tweet came after former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke called the NBA’s response “an embarrassment” on Sunday. Julian Castro, a former mayor of San Antonio, called on the United States to “not allow American citizens to be bullied by an authoritarian government.”
“We’re better than this; human rights shouldn’t be for sale & the NBA shouldn’t be assisting Chinese communist censorship,” Cruz tweeted.
We’re better than this; human rights shouldn’t be for sale & the NBA shouldn’t be assisting Chinese communist censorship.
— Ted Cruz (@tedcruz) October 7, 2019
President Donald Trump has not directly addressed Morey’s tweet, but told reporters Monday at the White House that China needs to deal with the Hong Kong protests in a “peaceful manner.” In June, Trump reportedly promised Chinese President Xi Jinping that the United States government would stay silent on the protests as the two countries worked to ease trade tensions.