NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said Tuesday that he won’t censor players or team owners over China or other issues, arguing that the league is motivated by much more than money, and freedom of expression must be protected.
The NBA and its big business in China have come under intense pressure in recent days after Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey expressed support for pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong in a tweet, sparking a backlash from Beijing.
The league initially sought to distance itself from Morey’s comments, expressing regret for offending “friends and fans in China” while saying Morey had the right to free expression. That angered both sides: The league was criticized by some fans and US politicians for appearing to compromise its principles, and condemned by others in China for offending national sensibilities.
The attacks prompted Silver to issue a statement before a press conference Tuesday in Tokyo, acknowledging that the league’s initial response left people “angered, confused or unclear.”
“The NBA will not put itself in a position of regulating what players, employees and team owners say or will not say,” Silver said in the statement. “We simply could not operate that way.”
The stance could endanger the league’s position in China, one of its most important markets.
Several Chinese businesses suspended ties with the Rockets in response to Morey’s tweet, and broadcasters have said they will not show Rockets games in the country.
The threat to the league’s business grew on Tuesday, when CCTV Sports, a division of China’s state broadcaster, said it would not broadcast preseason games played in China, including one between the Brooklyn Nets and the LA Lakers later this week in Shanghai.
“We believe any remarks that challenge national sovereignty and social stability do not belong to the category of free speech,” CCTV Sports said in a statement.
Yet there were signs that the league would try to ride out the controversy.
“I do know there are consequences from freedom of speech; we will have to live with those consequences,” Silver told reporters in Tokyo. “For those who question our motivation, this is about far more than growing our business,” he added.
The NBA has spent years and many millions of dollars investing in China, helping to build courts, giving broadcasting rights away for free and bringing its stars over for preseason games.
Nearly 500 million people in China watched NBA programming on platforms owned by tech giant Tencent (TCEHY) over the last season, and the two sides recently signed a five-year extension of their partnership. Tencent (TCEHY) has suspended streaming for Rockets games and joined CCTV on Tuesday in refusing to show some preseason games.
Silver said that while he would not apologize for the substance of Morey’s controversial tweet, he understood why some people, including former Rockets star Yao Ming — chairman of the Chinese Basketball Association — were upset.
“It is inevitable that people around the world — including from America and China — will have different viewpoints over different issues,” he said in a statement. “It is not the role of the NBA to adjudicate those differences.”