James Harden of Houston Rockets
James Harden

Smartphone maker Vivo,  broadcaster CCTV and internet giant Tencent have become the latest Chinese firms to cut ties with the National Basketball Association (NBA).

It came after Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey had recently tweeted in support of the protests in Hong Kong. “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong,” he had tweeted, which did not go well with many Chinese people. In spite of the tweet being deleted and the NBA trying to solve the issues, the Chinese companies now refuse to broadcast the NBA preseason.

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.”

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver also tried to steer the league from the controversy. “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. 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,” he said.

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 this could be a huge loss to the league. 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.

“There is no doubt, the economic impact is already clear,” NBA Commissioner Adam 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.”