What is the cost of the “freedom of speech”?

We in the communication profession often hear that a company needs to set clear values ​​and a vision, and to follow them diligently in order to be successful in operation and reputation. Whatever the situation, values ​​and vision are two things that at least in theory indicate a direction of the organization’s response. But what happens when a political situation in a foreign market, divergent standpoints of individuals, business interests and, of course, a lot of money interfere with values ​​and vision, which in the extreme can endanger the stability of the organization?

Therefore, welcome to sports. And business. Can we even separate these two? The NBA league is one of the largest, most influential and richest sports organizations in the world. China is the fastest-growing market where basketball’s popularity is rising exponentially, and despite having the summer off, the world-renowned players go on a “Chinese tour” with tens of thousands of fans waiting for them. Also, individual clubs conclude sponsorship deals with Chinese companies worth tens of millions of dollars or euros, allowing themselves and their players higher wages due to the increasing interest of China and associated increased inflows.

I hope that this brief and concise introduction at least somewhat outlines to all of us the interdependence and the situation of NBA-China relationship. That is why it is interesting to consider that a billion dollar / euro deal can be almost “destroyed” by a single tweet. Daryl Morey, general manager of the Houston Rockets team – which by the way has been the most popular NBA team since the time of Yao Ming – shared a tweet with his followers regarding the protests in Hong Kong:

Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.

In doing so, he clearly supported the efforts of the protesters there and consequently stood against the Chinese government. And while the latter expected immediate condemnation by the NBA league and even the dismissal of Morey from his position, that didn’t happen. Adam Silver, an NBA Commissioner and a No1 name of the league, said: “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…”, however, he regrets Morey’s tweet nonetheless.

Adam Silver, NBA Commissioner


The response can be seen as an attempt to maintain a good reputation in the United States, that is in “the West” and China, since the NBA is, in spite of its home country being USA, a global organization, which in its communication cannot and should not ignore points of view worldwide. But in a given situation, a full preservation of reputation was simply no longer possible. Silver and the NBA have found themselves in a crossfire and neither side could be satisfied without completely destroying its relationship with the other.

The result is a discontinuation of Chinese companies’ and sponsors’ cooperation with the NBA teams, cancelled plans to show a pair of preseason games played in China, while many individual contracts with players whose personal sponsors are Chinese business giants being endangered. For the purposes of illustration – a Daryl Morey’s tweet cost Houston Rockets between 10 and 25 million US dollars. The company of NBA China, the Chinese affiliate of the NBA league, is valued at 4 billion US dollars with its value growing each year. With a new digital deal worth 1.5 billion US dollars over the next five years, the Chinese operator has become the NBA’s largest partner outside the US.

Kobe Bryant and other superstars visit China every summer.


Follow values ​​or submit to the pressure of capital?

Political, media, economic pressures from all sides have forced the NBA and Silver to respond further, as the original statement raised even more criticism on both fronts. Silver responded much more comprehensively and clearly this time, saying: “It is inevitable that people around the world – including from America and China – will have different viewpoints over different issues. It is not the role of the NBA to adjudicate those differences.”

He added:“However, 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.”

Even more surprising was his continuation and realization that he was accepting certain consequences: “I do know there are consequences from freedom of speech; we will have to live with those consequences.”He stressed that he is “sympathetic” to the Chinese market and partners, but at the same time does not want and will not call the values ​​of the NBA into question, that is the values that he himself as a commissioner embodies.

The NBA has therefore sided with the pursuit of its values, being the following: integrity, teamwork, respect and innovation. A position that will certainly not be accepted openly in China, but will set the NBA league as an example of steadfastness in the discussion about pursuing the values ​​that are ultimately respected and – as could be interpreted – appreciated by China as its partner.

At the same time, it should be noted that, unlike the league, the owner of the Houston Rockets team himself publicly criticized his general manager Morey and condemned his tweet. The No1 star of the team, James Harden, also apologized publicly for the tweet.

The interests are therefore divergent – but above all, the communication is driven by divergent motives, be it finances, reputation or something else. The example presented here shows us that in a global organization such as the NBA, a single post on a social network can have many consequences affecting all stakeholders. Therefore, an organization that supports or takes such actions must be prepared for crisis communication and topic management worldwide, with different partners and different cultures. Although late, the NBA has followed its principles, which is certainly good in the long run and others could follow this example. It’s just a shame they didn’t realize it immediately. Although the future direction of a multi-billion-dollar cooperation between the NBA and China is not clear at the moment, the league has shown a remarkable degree of stoicism and has accepted the potential negative consequences of its standpoint.

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