NBA bilingual apology scrutinised as Houston Rockets merchandise is struck from Chinese retailers


CCTV and Tencent Holdings have since announced they will cease broadcast of all Houston Rockets matches as part of their NBA coverage. In addition, it has already cancelled broadcasts of two NBA preseason games.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver has also issued a further statement defending Houston Rocket's general manager Daryl Morey's right to post saying, "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."

(Photo Credit: NBA)

When NBA team Houston Rocket's general manager Daryl Morey tweeted on Saturday to support Hong Kong's ongoing protests, it sparked immediate reports of anger and a flood of calls for a boycott by Chinese brands and commenters. And though the NBA rushed to issue a statement, bilingual readers were quick to spot major differences in meaning between the English and Chinese versions.

Morey's image post - which stated “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong” - and subsequent backtrack and apology, as well as comments made by Rockets player James Harden, and executive vice-chairman of Alibaba Group and Brooklyn Nets owner Joe Tsai have all poured gasoline on a PR crisis. But the reaction by the NBA itself has an added layer of complexity in potential duplicity that has drawn some ire.

In a statement, NBA spokesman Mike Bass said, “We recognise 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.”

However, on NBA's official Weibo account, a statement issued on 7 October read "We are deeply disappointed by Morey's inappropriate comment. Undoubtedly, he severely hurt the feelings of Chinese basketball fans."

"Morey has clarified that his comment did not represent Houston Rocket's and NBA's stances. While NBA 'extremely respects' Chinese history and culture, we hope that sports and NBA could act as a positive energy to bring people together," the statement added.

Bass said that they had not seen various interpretations of the Mandarin translation of the statement, which baffled some as the NBA's statement in English did not include phrases that would ever likely to be translated as “extremely disappointed”, ″inappropriate”, or “severely hurt the feelings”.

As China allows no dissent on sensitive issues,  the Houston Rockets has been resoundingly punished by Chinese media, authorities, brands, and online platforms.

As of publishing, all Houston Rockets merchandise on Alibaba's e-commerce platform Taobao turned up zero results. Chinese sporting goods brand Li-Ning said in a statement on Sunday that it was suspending cooperation with the team because of Morey’s “mistaken remarks.” Hupu, a Chinese sports news website, has also suspended all coverage of the team and locked the section of its website previously dedicated to the team.

In a face-saving interview with Japan's Kyodo News, NBA commissioner Adam Silver said the organisation supports freedom of expression without necessarily endorsing a point of view, while reinforcing the league’s stance that members of the NBA community were free to express themselves and that the league backed their right to do so.

“There are the values that have been part of this league from its earliest days, and that includes free expression," Silver said.

Silver further explained that NBA, as a values-based organisation, supported Morey to exercise his freedom of expression, but he also "accept that it is 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.”

What has seemingly made this situation even worse, is that netizens are having a field day comparing it to a recent episode of the animated programme South Park, which focused on the issue of Chinese government censorship of  Western media. The episode even presciently features an appearance by NBA players going to China to represent the NBA brand, with Harden being clearly identifiable. The South Park episode itself, titled Band in China has unsurprisingly been banned in China.

Meanwhile, the NBA isn't the only company dealing with a PR crisis related to Hong Kong's political issues. The removal of an entry to a design contest that referenced the ongoing protests has provided shoe brand Vans with its own batch of angry netizens.