Houston Rockets General Manager’s Exercise of Freedom of Speech May Cost His Team and the NBA Billions in Revenue from China
10/9/19 – – “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.”
When Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey tweeted those seven words on Friday, he thrust his team and the National Basketball Association into a Category-5 reputational storm. A seemingly laudable, unassailable tweet in support of pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong is threatening to derail more than 30 years of effort and investment by the NBA and countless U.S. businesses chasing the fortunes of China’s enormous, ever-growing consumer market.
This international firestorm, which has put billions of dollars of revenue at risk, is a cautionary tale for crisis counselors and communicators trying to balance the increasing pressure on corporate executives to speak out on social and political issues with the harsh realities of jumping into the soup. As I emphasize in The Crisis Preparedness Quotient and have warned many times in my blog posts, only enter this reputational minefield with extreme caution.
It didn’t take long for offended Chinese interests to respond with outrage to Morey’s “tweet heard round the world.” There is no more disturbing problem for the communist rulers in mainland China than the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong by what they see as lawless “separatists.” How dare an executive representing the former NBA team of beloved Chinese basketball star Yao Ming — who now is the president of the Chinese Basketball Association — interfere in the domestic affairs of a sovereign nation.
Quick, apologetic responses from Morey (“I have had a lot of opportunity since that tweet to hear and consider other perspectives”) and Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta (“Listen….@dmorey does NOT speak for the @HoustonRockets . . . we are NOT a political organization”) angered Americans, who see Hong Kong’s struggles as a battle between freedom and oppression, good and evil. Democrat Julian Castro insisted that the United States “must lead with our values and speak out for pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, and not allow American citizens to be bullied by an authoritarian government.” Republican Ted Cruz scolded the NBA for “shamefully retreating.”
Attempting to be a peacemaker, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver apologized to all those offended by the tweet, but defended Morey’s right to freedom of expression, explaining, “Daryl Morey, as general manager of the Houston Rockets, enjoys that right as one of our employees . . . what I also tried to suggest is that I understand there are consequences from this freedom of speech and we will live with those consequences.”
Government-run China Central Television (CCTV) cancelled broadcasts of scheduled NBA exhibition games in China and issued this statement: “We’re strongly dissatisfied and oppose Adam Silver’s claim to support Morey’s right to freedom of expression. We believe that any remarks that challenge national sovereignty and social stability are not within the scope of freedom of speech.”
We’ll see how this all plays out for the NBA and companies like Nike, that want to sell a lot of basketball sneakers and jerseys to the more than 1.4 billion people living in China. Doing business in a country that does not share our values is dicey at best. Defending its appropriateness is even harder. Former NBA Commissioner David Stern, who is credited with leading the explosive growth of the league domestically and abroad, said this in a 2006 Sports Illustrated article: “Believe me, the China situation bothers me . . . But at the end of the day, I have a responsibility to my owners to make money. I can never forget that, no matter what my personal feelings might be.”
Unfortunately for the NBA, Daryl Morey — like far too many well-meaning, but short-sighted corporate executives — forgot that. His indiscretion prompted Wall Street Journal opinion writer Holman W. Jenkins, Jr., to observe in today’s paper: “It boggles the mind that so many insist on playing Twitter roulette with their careers and the commercial interests of their employees.”
Perhaps the best response, and advice, came from Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta, who pleaded that his organization “has no political position. We’re here to play basketball and not to offend anybody.”
Seems like a wise and reasonable position to me.