The NBA’s flagrant foul against free speech

Our nation can buckle under. Or we can tell China, as the NBA should have done, that we will defend the right of any American to take a stand for human rights.

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Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey

When Daryl Morey, general manager of the Houston Rockets, tweeted his support for pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong, the NBA apologized profusely to China.

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China has a problem with people speaking their mind.

Say anything at all in China that’s deemed to be contrary to the “state’s interests” and you can get hauled off to jail.

Now China wants to limit our free speech, too, right here in the United States of America. They want to bully us into silence, wielding like a weapon the power of the Chinese market place.

We can buckle under, as the National Basketball Association did this weekend. Or we can stand up and tell China — as the NBA should have done — that we will always defend the right of any American to take a personal stand for human rights.

The firestorm was set off on Friday night when Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets, posted on Twitter a slogan commonly used by pro-democracy demonstrators now risking their lives in Hong Kong: “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong.”

Chinese officials in Beijing, which is doing its best to squelch human rights in Hong Kong, immediately took offense and hammered the Rockets in about a half dozen ways.

The Chinese Basketball Association announced it would suspend cooperation with the team. China’s consulate general in Houston, sounding like a Communist Party hack in an old re-education camp, urged the team “clarify and immediately correct” Morey’s mistake.

China’s top TV state broadcaster announced that it would not air Houston Rockets games. A major online sport provider in China announced it would suspend live streaming Rockets games. A large Chinese manufacturer of sportswear announced that it would stop cooperating with the Rockets, as did a major Chinese bank.

All because one American dared to speak his mind.

Until his own bosses, that is, effectively told him to shut up.

Morey “does NOT speak for the @HoustonRockets,” the team’s owner, Tilman Fertitta tweeted out quickly. “We are NOT a political organization.”

Morey deleted his controversial tweet shortly after posting it and he later apologized in writing, which we wish he had not.

“I was merely voicing one thought, based on one interpretation, of one complicated event,” he wrote. “I have had a lot of opportunity since that tweet to hear and consider other perspectives.”

The perspective we suspect Morey heard most, from his own bosses and the NBA, is that China is a golden goose. So don’t say a word that might kill it, certainly not concerning something so trivial as human rights.

Nearly 500 million people in China watch NBA games, and about 300 million people there actually play the game. The NBA rakes in billions of dollars from its Chinese market.

As we see it, the Rockets hung Morey out to dry. And the NBA, while issuing a bland statement on Monday that the league supports “individuals educating themselves and sharing their views on matters important to them,” didn’t do much better by him.

In a separate statement of apology written in Mandarin, the NBA abandoned any pretense of defending Morey, saying it was “extremely disappointed” by his “inappropriate” comment.

As Beto O’Rourke, a Democrat from Texas who is running for the Democratic nomination for president, succinctly put it in a tweet: “The only thing the NBA should be apologizing for is their blatant prioritization of profits over human rights.”

What we’re witnessing is the nation with the world’s second-biggest economy, China, attempting to chill free speech in the nation with the world’s biggest economy, the United States, by threatening a massive market punishment.

If China can pull this on the Rockets and the NBA, it can pull it on any other American industry — such as agriculture or heavy equipment manufacturers — that relies heavily on exports to China. The United States exported almost $540 billion in goods to China last year, more than 12% of our nation’s gross domestic product.

All big American companies have formal codes of conduct as to what employees can say or do outside the workplace. That only makes sense. A company must protect its image and bottom line. So, for example, an employee who posts hate speech online risks being fired.

But a code of conduct that would discourage an employee from expressing a personal view on a matter as fundamental as human rights — whether here or abroad — almost always goes too far in an open society.

We are thinking here of the National Football League, which should vigorously defend — far more than it has — the right of any player to “take a knee” to protest police brutality and racism.

And we are thinking of the Houston Rockets and NBA, which should vigorously defend Morey’s right — and every employee’s right — to take a stand about what they see going on in Hong Kong.

China’s a big player in the business of basketball and the world economy.

But some things matter more than the bottom line.

Send letters to: letters@suntimes.com.

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