David Stern’s appearance Wednesday night at UMass Amherst went more than an hour before he addressed the so-called elephant in the room: Daryl Morey’s tweet in support of Hong Kong and the ensuing friction it caused between the NBA and China.
The former NBA commissioner says the league was treated unfairly in the aftermath.
“Everyone got it wrong,” Stern said Wednesday.
“Most reporters and particularly the eight members of the Senate and the House that didn’t have enough publicity, so they wrote a letter to the NBA saying you shouldn’t have apologized,” he added. “Whatever staffer wrote that letter should be looking for a job, because it wasn’t true.”
Stern — who was named the executive-in-residence his fall for the UMass business school’s sports management department earlier this month — amiably held forth on a variety of subjects during his sold-out lecture on the Amherst campus, taking questions on everything from the NBA’s popularity to the impact of gambling to the growth and future prospects of the WNBA to the increasing acceptance of cannabis in professional sports.
But perhaps his most topical remarks were saved for last.
Stern said the NBA should keep doing business with China, but hold firm on its values of free expression, after a tweet by Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets, expressing support for pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong drew a forceful backlash from Chinese fans and business partners in the massive, lucrative overseas market.
The NBA has also faced a domestic backlash for its initial response to Morey’s tweet, in which Stern’s successor, Adam Silver, said it was “regrettable” that the league’s Chinese fans were offended. While he reaffirmed the NBA’s belief in free speech, Silver said the tweet did not “represent the Rockets or the NBA.” He later issued a second statement more clearly supporting the free speech rights of the league’s players and employees.
Stern, however, says that even the criticism of Silver’s initial response was unfair and that media outlets inaccurately covered his statement as an apology.
“The NBA has gotten a very difficult rap the last few days, because it is being reported that it actually apologized to the Chinese for the tweet by Daryl Morey of Houston,” he said. “And in fact it never did. Adam Silver said that he regretted that our Chinese fans were upset by that, but that’s the way it is in America. You educate yourself and you go ahead and tweet. And we have free speech here.”
Stern also chided the politicians who involved themselves in the matter, specifically mentioning Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ted Cruz.
The New York Democrat and Texas Republican were among eight federal lawmakers who signed a letter to Silver, calling on the NBA to suspend activities in China until the country’s government-controlled business partners completely restored ties to the league. The letter also accused the NBA of allowing the repressive Chinese government to police speech in the United States and blasted the league for selling out Morey and “apologizing” for his tweet.
“The one thing you can ask Senator Cruz and AOC — talk about different types of people — is before they sign their name willy-nilly to a letter, they should find out what the facts are,” Stern said Wednesday
The 77-year-old Stern, who served as commissioner for three decades until 2014, said he was ultimately “very proud of the way the NBA has handled itself” in the midst of such a high-profile international dispute. He also noted that Tencent, the exclusive NBA broadcaster in China, which was among several companies to protest Morey’s tweet, had quietly begun airing NBA games again this week.
In a somewhat tortured metaphor, Stern compared the NBA’s ongoing relationship with China to the political system in Hong Kong, which ensures certain free expression rights, even though the semi-autonomous region technically belongs to authoritarian China.
“I think there’s an opportunity to work out something, which is akin not to one country two systems, but two countries two systems,” he said. “And our system includes the freedom of speech, which is dear to us, and will continue to be upheld with the NBA as the representative.”