Ten questions about Daryl Morey, the Rockets, Tillman Fertitta, Joe Tsai, and China
Is the NBA quietly playing hardball?
BY HENRY ABBOTT
Daryl Morey, the GM of the Houston Rockets, tweeted generic support for protestors in Hong Kong on Friday. Before long, the owners of the Rockets and Nets, and the commissioner of the NBA had all weighed in. Morey deleted the tweet. There was talk of his losing his job and big business impact to the NBA’s bottom line. It all raises hard questions about how freedom of speech operates in global business.
What are the NBA’s core values? The NBA can just be a business about making money. Often, that’s exactly how the league behaves. But sometimes, especially under Adam Silver, the NBA has talked and walked like it stands for something. Silver has taken substantive positions—like kicking out a governor and moving the All-Star game away from North Carolina when it had discriminatory bathroom laws—citing what he has called the league’s “core values.” They have never been clearly enumerated. Most recently Silver has listed “equality, respect, and freedom of expression.” But wouldn’t it be handy, in times of stress like this week, if they were all published and hanging on the wall?
Does the NBA disagree with Hong Kong protestor values? The NBA doesn’t have to have values, but chooses to. Those are things that don’t change with circumstances. And so I’m wondering if the values of the protestors in Hong Kong are in rough alignment with the NBA’s? Or if not, how? Megan K. Stack of the New Yorker summarized the situation as of the end of August: “... the spectre of Hong Kong residents vanishing into the mainland’s opaque police and court system provoked immediate outrage. A groundswell of protests turned violent on June 12th, when street battles erupted between police and activists. The [controversial extradition] bill was then suspended indefinitely, but that wasn’t enough to quell public anger. The protesters have repeatedly returned to the streets and train stations and even Hong Kong’s airport, demanding a slate of reforms, including the total withdrawal of the extradition bill, an investigation into police use of force, and the right to elect leaders without the influence of Beijing.”
What do we think of Joe Tsai’s statement? Joe Tsai almost made it through his first two months as an NBA governor without controversy. When he purchased the Nets in August, he also purchased—with the approval and vetting of the NBA—the de facto right to be quoted in moments like this. He purchased a reputation and a megaphone. He wasted no time using them. The Nets’ new owner wrote an open letter on Facebook. The Communist Party has suggested that Hong Kong’s unrest isn’t the product of concerns about the justice system, but the product of meddling by the U.S. Tsai’s statement tiptoes in that direction by detailing a history of times China has been invaded, or had its sovereignty threatened. Then, he rejects the idea that the people of China—which includes Hong Kong—have any dispute at all. He says that “all citizens in China … 1.4 billion Chinese citizens stand united when it comes to the territorial integrity of China and the country’s sovereignty over her homeland.” Is this an attempt to spin these protests as foreign meddling? Do you get to use the NBA stage to play high-level geopolitics? Wow, could this become a headache for Adam Silver. Commissionering ain’t easy, and this one won’t go away. Tsai ends by saying, “I will continue to be an outspoken NBA Governor on issues that are important to China.”
Does anyone believe the Rockets really are not political? Daryl Morey’s boss, Tilman Fertitta (an outspoken Trump supporter), seems to enjoy every opportunity to bask in the spotlight that comes with owning the Rockets. He takes the fascinating position that the Rockets are not political. Ha! They have 400-odd employees. I bet between them, those people have more than a thousand social media accounts. If the Rockets were truly apolitical in a land of free speech, those accounts would contain a little bit of everything from across the spectrum. Thomas Jefferson cares about that, on some level. If, instead, those accounts are generally free speech, but surgically scrubbed of one particular point of view—like Morey’s removed tweet—isn’t that really, in fact, deeply political?
Could this make Daryl Morey more secure in his job? There has been a lot of hand wringing about how the NBA’s big clients in China are taking all this. Another important constituency? Texas: home of three NBA teams and a famous independent streak. The slightest hint that someone can pick up a phone in Beijing and curb speech in Houston promises to not sit well. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (Via Axios): "As a lifelong Houston Rockets fan, I was proud to see [Daryl Morey] call out the Chinese Communist Party's repressive treatment of protestors in Hong Kong. ... We're better than this; human rights shouldn't be for sale & the NBA shouldn't be assisting Chinese communist censorship." What kind of ovation will Morey get at the next Rockets home game? And what about Fertitta? If Morey survives this and becomes a cult hero, did he just become almost impossible to fire?
I lied. This one is not a question. The Ringer’s Brian Phillips is not the critic you want: “There’s nothing edifying about any of this, except to the extent that it’s a useful reminder of where we are. We’re in a world where global capital feels perfectly comfortable teaming up with communist autocrats against democracy activists, as long as it keeps the cash registers dinging. Generally speaking, the hypocrisy of sports owners feels more depressing than the hypocrisy of other tycoon varietals, because sports owners represent a product that you’d like to believe has a meaning surpassing commerce. This is especially true about the NBA, because the NBA is so proud of its social conscience, or at least it was before its social conscience started threatening to cost it money.”
What did the NBA really apologize for? That Times subhead looks terrible. At first glance, the NBA looks to have been lily-livered. Morey’s comments, said the NBA statement, “deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China, which is regrettable.” Reportedly the Chinese-language version went further, expressing “extreme disappointment” in Mr. Morey’s “inappropriate comments.” And certainly, the NBA did not initially make an impassioned plea for decency or free speech. (Once upon a time, this might have been a time to discuss “American values,” but they’re in a rough patch right now.) However, through all the vagary (and that slippery translation issue), the league actually promised nothing. It didn’t, in fact, back down at all. The substance of the statement seems to be the worst kind of apology ever: Sorry you took offense. Is it possible they were quietly playing hardball all along? In a follow-up statement today, the commissioner seems to be finding his sea legs: “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.” Hmmmm…Can Morey restore his tweet now?
What kind of appetite does the NBA have to use its leverage? The NBA has crazy leverage. According to an NBA China executive, the annual NBA preseason games are the most popular recurring live sporting event in all of China. And they are days away. The NBA has done incredible work over decades to make the NBA the brand most associated with elite basketball in China. The Chinese leadership, according to sophisticated analysis, has limited options in dealing with Hong Kong protests. Severing ties with the NBA would not add to the leadership’s popularity. Politicians all over the world go to great lengths to affiliate with celebrities and sports stars. Is the NBA willing to use that leverage?
Could this be hardball? Is it possible that right now—as it seems everyone is decrying the NBA for having no spine and worshiping the almighty dollar above all else—the league is in fact taking a giant hit to the bottom line while also standing up to the powers that be in China? Silver told Kyodo News: “There is no doubt, the economic impact is already clear.” He also said “Daryl Morey is supported in terms of his ability to exercise his freedom of expression."
How much healing can happen over the next few days? It feels like a fiasco, but might this all be progress? Hear me out. The NBA has grown accustomed to shocking growth on the wings of one multi-billion dollar boom after another—in taxpayer stadium dollars, the explosion of cable dollars, and the massive reach of digital and mobile. Until there’s a new and better way to monetize game broadcasts domestically, the future of that growth comes from globalization, especially in India and China. So the NBA is all-in for the long-term—just like China. And messy though it may be, it is a marriage that has already endured, despite profound bumps, for decades. This particular bump is probably not helping Commissioner Silver’s sleep this week. But long-term, it is wonderful that he is due to be hobnobbing with powerbrokers in Shanghai and Shenzhen over the next few days. This is the equivalent of your warring relatives all sitting down together at the same wedding. Get a little water under the bridge, you know? They need each other and couldn’t break up if they tried. That’s family. They’ll muddle through, probably in a dissatisfying way. Building real trust is difficult, takes forever, and seldom feels righteous. But isn’t that better than staying home, issuing statements, and feeling completely correct?
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