Heard on the Hill

Republicans accuse NBA of cowardice in flare-up with China

Senators call on the NBA to demonstrate same approach to domestic issues

Sen. Marco Rubio is among the Republican senators criticizing the NBA for its recent cave on China. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The National Basketball Association is coming under fire from three Republican senators accusing the league of moral cowardice and capitulation to Chinese officials after a Houston Rockets executive expressed support for pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong.

Sens. Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Josh Hawley are condemning the league and the Rockets for silencing team general manager Daryl Morey, who recently tweeted “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong,” in response to ongoing protests, before deleting the message.

Hawley went so far as to call on the league to cancel its remaining preseason games currently scheduled in China. The Missouri senator said he was “disgusted” by the league’s actions.

“Doing business in China is one thing, but for the NBA to kowtow to the demands of one of the world’s most brutal regimes in the pursuit of profit is, frankly, revolting,” he wrote in a letter to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. “You know better.”

The NBA has made expansion into the lucrative Chinese market a top priority as it tries to grow the game globally. The Rockets have a special relationship with the country after it drafted Chinese superstar Yao Ming in 2002. This latest controversy could have lasting consequences for the business relationship between the league and China.

Following Morey’s tweet, the executive was soon denounced by the Chinese Basketball Association, the Chinese government and Houston Rockets owner Tilman Fertita, who said Morey doesn’t speak for the team.

The NBA issued a statement trying to quell tensions between the parties:

“We recognize that the views expressed by Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey have deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China, which is regrettable. While Daryl has made it clear that his tweet does not represent the Rockets or the NBA, the values of the league support individuals’ educating themselves and sharing their views on matters important to them. We have great respect for the history and culture of China and hope that sports and the NBA can be used as a unifying force to bridge cultural divides and bring people together.”
Cruz said that as a lifelong Rockets fan he was “proud” to see Morey speak out against a country whose leaders have been accused of undermining the rule of law to attack its political opponents.

Florida’s Rubio took time out between his tweets about the hapless Miami Dolphins to attack the NBA for deferring to the Chinese government, while also calling the league’s players hypocrites for not speaking out on this issue, despite having a reputation for being vocal on other contentious social topics.

“As #China strong arms the NBA into silence still waiting for Nike & their stable of ‘woke’ social justice warrior/athletes to speak out,” he tweeted.

NBA stars such as LeBron James have been outspoken on racial justice issues and very critical of racist comments by President Donald Trump. For instance, LeBron James who once called Trump a “bum” following the president’s spat with NBA player Stephen Curry.

The senators, particularly Rubio, argue that it is hypocritical for the NBA to be outspoken on domestic issues while staying silent on human rights abuses in China.

The comments come on the heels of Trump calling on the Chinese government to investigate the business dealings of former Vice President Joe Biden, his potential rival for the White House in 2020. Rubio dismissed the talk as the president just having fun with reporters, despite the newly opened impeachment inquiry into a similar request the president allegedly made to the Ukranian government.

While the Florida senator had harsh words for athletes like Rockets star James Harden, who apologized to the Chinese fans, Rubio has offered support for other outspoken athletes, including Miami Dolphins player Kenny Stills, who has kneeled in protest against police brutality during the national anthem.

“You don’t have to agree with how or why he has chosen to exercise the 1st Amendment before every game to acknowledge the hours he gives voluntarily, on his day off, to serve his fellow Americans,” said Rubio.

Hawley, a Trump ally, has gone after other companies doing business in China, including Google, whom the senator accused of helping the Chinese government censor speech in its search engine.

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone.