It’s not just ESPN trying to avoid (unsuccessfully) the political dimensions of the NBA’s ongoing dispute with China. The Wizards and 76ers both removed signs and/or protesting fans during preseason games this week, and now the Rockets have stopped media members from asking their players about China. The Rockets beat the Raptors 118-111 in a game in Japan Thursday morning, and after that, they held their usual post-game press conferences. During one with Rockets’ players James Harden and Russell Westbrook, CNN’s Christina Macfarlane asked them a question about if the China saga would influence if they speak out on issues in the future, and a Rockets’ media relations staffer shut it down before they could answer.
Update: The NBA has now criticized the Rockets’ handling of this, as per Bloomberg’s Scott Soshnick:
— Scott Soshnick (@soshnick) October 10, 2019
As for the initial exchange, Ryan Gaydos of Fox News describes that here:
A video posted on Twitter by The Athletic’s Rockets insider, Alykhan Bijani, showed CNN’s Christina Macfarlane asking a question about whether Harden and Westbrook “would feel differently about speaking out” about geopolitical issues in the future due to the fallout from this week, which saw stars and coaches appear uncomfortable answering China-specific questions — which earned them a public rebuke from President Trump.But instead of allowing the two to answer the general question, the spokesperson chimed in almost immediately and told Macfarlane the questions were only going to be about basketball topics. When the spokesperson said the question had already been answered this week, Macfarlane shot back and said it was a “legitimate question.”
Here’s that video:
James Harden and Russell Westbrook were asked if they would “feel differently” about speaking on political and societal affairs because of the events with the NBA/China.
A spokesperson interrupted and informed the reporter that the players would answer basketball questions only. pic.twitter.com/zMe8uWz2hY
— Alykhan Bijani (@Rockets_Insider) October 10, 2019
Yes, Harden and Westbrook have been asked about China before (Harden’s “We apologize. You know, we love China” quote is included in Gaydos’ story), but this was a different question, a question not designed to get them to comment on China but on how they’ll approach speaking on political and social affairs in general in the future. As Macfarlane says in the clip, “This particular question has not been answered.”
That’s absolutely a legitimate question, given the way that players like Harden and Westbrook have previously spoken out on issues that matter to them, and a response in either direction (“Yes, this has shown the importance of careful research and thought before speaking,” or “No, I’ll continue to speak about what’s important to me”) is interesting and newsworthy. And if the players don’t want to answer, they can say “no comment” themselves. A media relations staffer intervening to shut down the question before they get that opportunity is a bad look.
At least the Rockets didn’t cancel their entire media availability, the way the Chinese government did for the teams playing there and for NBA commissioner Adam Silver (which the NBA and the teams went along with). But there isn’t much of a difference there if you’re going to shut down legitimate questions. It’s good at least to see the NBA saying this was inappropriately handled, though, and hopefully that will mean teams won’t pull this one again.