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China's CCTV threatens to pull NBA broadcast ties as commissioner defends free speech

NBA working to fix relationship with China

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver tried to walk a fine line Tuesday as he defended the league's reputation as a progressive purveyor of free speech — but also to limit the financial damage caused by a single tweet that China deemed a direct insult.

China's behemoth national broadcaster CCTV announced it would no longer air the two NBA preseason games set to take place in China this week. They said it was in response to Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey's "inappropriate Hong Kong-related remarks."

Morey sent a tweet voicing support for Hong Kong's pro-democracy protesters over the weekend, then deleted it. He sent several tweets apologizing for offending any Chinese people, and Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta also tweeted what amounted to an apology and distanced the team from the general manager's remarks.

Silver and the NBA came to Morey's defense but tried to keep the league's stance neutral. The league released a statement on the controversy accepting that Morey's remark might have "deeply offended" some fans in China, and stressing that the Rockets GM "does not represent the Rockets or the NBA."

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NBA Commissioner Adam Silver speaks to the media October 8, 2019. Getty

Silver has been put in a delicate position since Morey's tweet went public, mainly due to the business relationship the NBA has with China. The NBA said the number of pro basketball fans in China is twice the U.S. population. The NBA also has a $1.5 billion deal with a Chinese streaming company.

"I don't think it's inconsistent on one hand to be sympathetic to them, and at the same time stand by our principles," said Silver during a news conference in Tokyo. Silver was in Japan on Tuesday for a preseason game between the Rockets and the Toronto Raptors. 

That qualified defense brought criticism from U.S. politicians of all stripes, who slammed the league for bending to Chinese pressure. Republican U.S. senators Ted Cruz of Texas, Rick Scott of Florida and Josh Hawley of Missouri and Democrat Brian Schatz of Hawaii all chimed in to criticize the apologetic tone adopted by the NBA.

"We're better than this; human rights shouldn't be for sale & the NBA shouldn't be assisting Chinese communist censorship," said Cruz in a tweet.

Hawley sniped: "Chinese govt has a million people locked in concentration camps & is trying to brutally repress Hong Kong demonstrators — and NBA wants to 'bridge cultural divides'? Cultural divides?'"

"The scope of freedom of speech"

The statement released by China's CCTV on Tuesday shows the struggle for U.S. organizations that do business with a nation that takes a starkly different view on "free speech."

"We are strongly dissatisfied and opposed Adam (Silver)'s claim to support Morey's rights of free expression. We believe that any speech that challenges national sovereignty and social stability is not within the scope of freedom of speech," the network said. "To this end, CCTV Sports Channel decided to immediately suspend the current broadcast arrangements of the NBA preseason (China games) and immediately investigate all cooperation and exchanges involving the NBA."

The relationship between China and the NBA is worth billions of dollars between media rights, online streaming or games and huge merchandise sales, and Silver conceded Tuesday that the effect of the spat was apparent.

"There is no doubt, the economic impact is already clear," Silver told Japanese news agency Kyodo. "There have already been fairly dramatic consequences from that tweet, and I have read some of the media suggesting that we are not supporting Daryl Morey, but in fact we have."

"There are the values that have been part of this league from its earliest days, and that includes free expression," Silver told Kyodo. "I think as a values-based organization that I want to make it clear ... that Daryl Morey is supported in terms of his ability to exercise his freedom of expression."

"I accept that it is also Chinese governments' and Chinese businesses' right to react to those words and, at least from my long-time experience in the NBA, it will take some time to heal some of these issues," Silver said on Tuesday.

Silver said the NBA would continue to protect NBA employees' right to voice their opinions, regardless of consequences. He said the league had spoken with Hall of Fame player and Chinese Basketball Association President Yao Ming, whom he described as "extremely upset." 

"I think it's unfortunate," said Silver, who will meet with Chinese officials on Wednesday. "But if that's the consequence of us adhering to our values, we still feel it's important."

Rockets star James Harden apologized for Morey's tweet spoke directly to Chinese basketball fans. "We apologize. You know, we love China. We love playing there," Harden told reporters after practice Monday. "For both of us individually, we go there once or twice a year. They show us the most important love."

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