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Daryl Morey sets off international incident with tweet

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The Rockets got intersected with international politics this weekend.

Yao Ming Retires From Basketball Photo by Visual China Group via Getty Images

It took me a little while to get a post up in regards to this breaking news. I certainly realize that you guys have all been discussing this in the Austin Rivers player preview (he’s about to look reaaallly popular when I pull some Google metrics), but I wanted to take some time, let this thing play out a little and also think about what I’d like to say.

I don’t often say much about politics, online or in real life. It’s not a topic I really enjoy discussing with anyone, even those who agree with me, so this is a bit of an uncomfortable piece for me to have to write. I thought about assigning this piece out to the staff, but it’s in times like these that you should hear from your editor.

As we all know by now, Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey has found himself in some hot water over a tweet sent out from his personal account in support of the Hong Kong protesters that stated, “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong.”

For those unfamiliar, pro-democratic protesters have been taking to the streets of Hong Kong to stand up to legislative enactments by the Chinese mainland that the protesters feel undermine the “one country, two systems” philosophy the two countries have lived under for years, which has Hong Kong technically living under the rule of communist/authoritarian China, but having their own more democratic/capitalistic leanings and even their own separate currency.

Since then, Morey’s tweet has sent off a firestorm, with the Chinese government basically severing all ties with the Rockets — who are one of the most popular teams in China — which has included the Chinese Basketball Association announcing a suspension of relations with the Rockets, CCTV5, which is the essentially the state-run network, will no longer show Rockets games, and major Chinese sponsors have backed out of monetary deals with the team.

Since then, Tilman Fertitta has apologized, James Harden has apologized, and now Morey has also issued a public clarification of his statements. The NBA was forced to release a statement through their Chief Communications Officer.

There was some concern that Morey’s job could even be in jeopardy after this, especially after the Chinese consulate general in Houston in a public statement asked that the team “clarify and immediately correct mistakes” and a report from The Ringer suggested that the Rockets were considering moving on from their GM.

However, since then, multiple sources — including Sam Amick and the Chron’s own Jonathan Feigen — have said that Morey’s job is thankfully safe. Losing him mere weeks before the start of a hopeful playoff run could have really thrown the franchise into turmoil. Heck, there’s enough turmoil right now even with it looking like Morey’s staying on.

Politicians, including Ted Cruz, have gotten involved, the owner of the Brooklyn Nets has released a statement referring to the protests as a “separatist movement” and insisting that China stands united, and just about everyone has an opinion on this obviously messy situation.

It’s messy, because on one hand, you realize that the NBA and the Rockets are a business, and ticking off the authoritarian regime that controls a massive part of your audience (500 million Chinese utilized the NBA digital rights holder’s platform Tencent last season), is not exactly a smart business idea.

But on the other, this is a free country, and watching the Rockets and the NBA bow to a totalitarian regime to benefit the bank account feels cringe-worthy from an emotional standpoint. But in a way, this is the most capitalist thing ever, isn’t it? C.R.E.A.M.

As we all know, freedom of speech only protects you from imprisonment or government persecution from the things you say. It doesn’t protect you from consequences altogether. It happens all the time, where someone says the wrong thing publicly and the people that don’t support them make them pay in the pocketbook (sometimes with their livelihood, sometimes protesting their business). This is our right as the consuming public in a democratic society. We are free to spend our money and our attention elsewhere. And technically, isn’t China doing just that?

With China’s authoritarian regime, the state becomes the consumer of the NBA product. We may not agree with that philosophy, but the NBA isn’t in business with private enterprise or the general Chinese public on an individual basis. The government makes these types of decisions for the populace, and this isn’t new information. The NBA knew that before going in to this relationship. We can argue against authoritarianism all day. That doesn’t change the reality that that is how China does business. The state is the consumer and will spend money as they see fit.

Look, I’m not about to support a totalitarian government looking to exert even more authoritarian control over their populace (though the situation does get more nuanced as the protests turn more violent), but whether you agree or not with the politics of the protesters simply isn’t the point.

Morey said what he wanted to say, and I 100-percent support that. But he pissed some people off in high places, and if China wishes to no longer spend their money on the Rockets, that’s within their right as well. You lie down with authoritarian dogs, and you come up with fleas, and with the Rockets and the NBA in direct business with the notoriously hard-line and controlling Chinese government, it was probably only a matter of time before something like this happened anyway.

I think this has a chance to blow over as cooler heads prevail, but it brings up a whole new world of considerations, as an increasingly global brand does business across a world stage with politics and values that may not match our own.