SAITAMA, Japan (AFP) — The NBA will not regulate speech and won’t apologise for a controversial tweet from a Houston Rockets executive that has sparked a Chinese backlash, the organisation’s commissioner said Tuesday.
The tweet by the Rockets’ general manager Daryl Morey supporting pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong has infuriated fans in China, a major market for the NBA.
But commissioner Adam Silver said the organisation would continue to “support freedom of expression and certainly freedom of expression of the NBA community.”
“Morey enjoys that right,” he added, speaking at a press conference in Japan where the Rockets are playing two exhibition games this week.
“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,” Silver said in a statement shortly before the press conference.
He reiterated that view to reporters.
“We are not apologising for Daryl exercising his freedom of expression,” he added, though he expressed “regret” that “so many people are upset, including millions and millions of our fans.”
The tweet posted Friday has provoked an international firestorm, with China suspending broadcasts of NBA exhibition matches on its state broadcaster and sponsors cutting ties with the Rockets.
China is the NBA’s biggest market outside the United States, and the Rockets are hugely popular there, harking back to their signing of Chinese star Yao Ming, who Silver said was “extremely upset” about Morey’s tweet.
Silver acknowledged that the controversy was having significant consequences — it has largely overshadowed a trip meant to help boost the brand in Japan and China — but said the organisation would have to “live with those consequences.”
“It’s not something we expected to happen, it’s unfortunate, but if that’s the consequence of us adhering to our values, we still feel its critically important we adhere to those values,” he added.
Silver said he understood Morey’s tweet, which has since been deleted, “hit what I would describe as a third rail issue.”
“Of course I would like people associated with the NBA to be sensitive about other people’s cultures, I think saying that by no means suggests we are going to regulate their speech,” he said.
“As a business that operates globally, we always have an eye on local mores, local customs, but again, that’s not prescriptive.”
The NBA has been forced on the defensive after its initial statement responding to the crisis was slammed across the political spectrum in the United States for bowing to China.
Silver said he still expects to travel to China later this week, and that there were no plans to cancel events.
“It’s my hope that when I’m in Shanghai I can meet with the appropriate officials and see where we stand,” he said.
© Agence France-Presse