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

It started with a tweet from the Houston Rockets' general manager -- words of support for the protests in Hong Kong -- that prompted swift backlash from Chinese financial backers. How the league then handled the conflict between its business in China and its approach toward free speech and human rights has set off a firestorm of reaction. Amna Nawaz talks with Mike Pesca, host of “The Gist.”

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  • 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:

    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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