An internal memo from a senior ESPN executive shows the network directed employees to steer clear of politics and focus on basketball during its coverage of the controversy the NBA has found itself in after distancing itself from pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.
The kerfuffle began when Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey tweeted and deleted a logo with the phrase, “Fight for Freedom. Stand With Hong Kong.”
The expression of support angered Chinese sponsors of the NBA, some of whom pulled their sponsorships. The NBA then released an apologetic statement distancing itself from Morey’s tweet, a move the organization received severe criticism for in the U.S.
As coverage of the story picked up, Chuck Salituro, the senior news director of ESPN, sent a memo discouraging staffers from engaging in a political discussion about China and Hong Kong during coverage of the story. Other senior executives were reportedly keeping close tabs on coverage as well.
ESPN’s coverage of the story included criticism directed at Morey for expressing his support for what the network called Hong Kong’s “anti-government” demonstrators, who are protesting what they feel is a stifling level of Chinese authority. The network also speculated about whether Morey will keep his job.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver defended Morey at a press conference on Tuesday, saying Morey has the right to freedom of speech.
“Daryl Morey, as general manager of the Houston Rockets, enjoys that right as one of our employees,” Silver said. “What I also tried to suggest is that I understand there are consequences from his freedom of speech and we will have to live with those consequences.”