NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said the Chinese Communist Party tried pressuring him into firing a general manager who posted a tweet in support of the Hong Kong protesters.
He also said his league has suffered “substantial” losses.
“Obviously, we made clear that we were being asked to fire him by the Chinese government, by the parties we dealt with, government and business. We said there’s no chance that’s happening. There’s no chance we’ll even discipline him,” Silver said while speaking at the Time 100 Health Summit in New York.
“So in that context I was saying on one hand we’re supporting free expression but, again, maybe I was trying too hard to be a diplomat.”
Silver defended the initial statement the NBA put out after Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey posted the tweet earlier this month, which said “Free Hong Kong.”
The NBA initially reacted by saying it was “regrettable” that the tweet “deeply offended” Chinese fans. The statement angered many Americans fans, who said they saw an American league kowtowing to China.
“Just to be clear, we did use the word ‘regrettable’ initially but the ‘regrettable’ was modifying the fact that we upset our Chinese fans. But, maybe a mistake or not—it’s too long an answer—but basketball has a very long history in China,” Silver said.
After expounding on that history, Silver added: “The regrettable notion was that we had upset our fans. I didn’t think at that time, while we were saying we regretted upsetting our fans, that also at the same time supporting Daryl Morey’s right to express himself, [his] right to tweet.”
He said the NBA never expressed regret to the Chinese regime and expressed confusion about people thinking the league “acquiesced to the Chinese.”
“We wanted to make sure that everyone understood that we were supporting free expression and also making clear that … our Chinese fans understood that providing a platform for freedom of expression is different than adjudicating a particular point of view and so I didn’t see it as my role as commissioner of the NBA to weigh in on the substance of this protest,” he said.
The NBA head later noted that the crisis has affected the league financially, calling the losses “substantial.”
“Our games are not back on the air in China as we speak and we’ll see what happens next,” Silver said. “The financial consequences may go on and be fairly dramatic.”
During the crisis, several teams were in China for exhibition games. The league has a growing presence in China and has hundreds of millions of fans there.
Backlash from China was quick after the tweet and included a number of Chinese companies suspending ties with the NBA. Morey later issued a statement saying what he posted was his personal view. He did not retract his pro-Hong Kong view. Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta was among those distancing himself from Morey’s tweet, and Rockets star James Harden apologized to the Chinese while in the country for a game.
Silver later issued a fuller statement after the first one advocating for the right of free speech.
“Values of equality, respect, and freedom of expression have long defined the NBA—and will continue to do so. As an American-based basketball league operating globally, among our greatest contributions are these values of the game,” he said in that statement.
“It is inevitable that people around the world—including from America and China—will have different viewpoints over different issues. It is not the role of the NBA to adjudicate those differences. “However, the NBA will not put itself in a position of regulating what players, employees, and team owners say or will not say on these issues. We simply could not operate that way.”