China’s CCTV threatens to pull NBA broadcast ties as commissioner defends free speech

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver tried to walk a fine line Tuesday as he defended the league’s reputation as a progressive purveyor of free speech — but also to limit the financial damage caused by a single tweet that China deemed a direct insult.

China’s behemoth national broadcaster CCTV announced it would no longer air the two NBA preseason games set to take place in China this week. They said it was in response to Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey’s “inappropriate Hong Kong-related remarks.”

Morey sent a tweet voicing support for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters over the weekend, then deleted it. He sent several tweets apologizing for offending any Chinese people, and Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta also tweeted what amounted to an apology and distanced the team from the general manager’s remarks.

Silver and the NBA came to Morey’s defense but tried to keep the league’s stance neutral. 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.”

Silver has been put in a delicate position since Morey’s tweet went public, mainly due to the business relationship the NBA has with China. 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.

“I don’t think it’s inconsistent on one hand to be sympathetic to them, and at the same time stand by our principles,” said Silver during a news conference in Tokyo. Silver was in Japan on Tuesday for a preseason game between the Rockets and the Toronto Raptors.