US Vice President Mike Pence on Thursday sharply denounced the NBA and its players for backtracking on criticism of China as he vowed support for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters.
“Some of the NBA’s biggest players and owners, who routinely exercise their freedom to criticize this country, lose their voices when it comes to the freedom and rights of other peoples,” Pence said in a speech in Washington.
“In siding with the Chinese Communist Party and silencing free speech, the NBA is acting like a wholly owned subsidiary of that authoritarian regime,” he said at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Pence hailed the mass movement that has erupted in Hong Kong seeking to preserve the city’s semi-autonomous status after Beijing attempted to allow extraditions into the mainland.
“We stand with you,” Pence said of the protesters. “We are inspired by you.”
“We urge you to stay on the path of non-violent protest. But know that you have the prayers and admiration of millions of Americans,” Pence said.
The National Basketball Association has been engulfed in controversy since Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey earlier this month tweeted “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong.”
China, a major market for the NBA, retaliated by ending sponsorships and canceling broadcasts of pre-season games held in the country, leading the NBA to drop all media events of the tour.
Pence’s criticism of players was likely a reference to Lakers superstar LeBron James, who took issue with Morey’s tweet on Hong Kong.
James has previously criticized President Donald Trump, accusing the stridently anti-immigration leader of igniting hate in the United States.
He also criticized footwear giant Nike for pulling Houston Rockets merchandise in China. Nike has a sponsorship deal with Colin Kaepernick, the American football quarterback who has been without a job after refusing to stand for the national anthem in a protest against racism.
“Nike promotes itself as a so-called ‘social-justice champion,’ but when it comes to Hong Kong, it prefers checking its social conscience at the door,” Pence said.