The Wells Fargo Center has quietly beefed up its sign policy to include a ban on political materials amid ongoing tension between the NBA and China over support for the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, just as the 76ers began their 2019-20 season.
Fans are allowed to bring signs, banners, posters, and flags into the arena, but on Wednesday, the policy was amended to ban content that staff at the center deems “political, ideological, or commercial in nature.”
The new policy, enacted before that night’s game, also now prohibits fans from hanging or taping signs over any part of the building, and bans the construction or display of any material that obstructs or interrupts the experience for other fans or guests.
Previously, the policy simply said that signs “may not be attached to stick/pole” and “must be in good taste.”
A spokesperson for the Wells Fargo Center said the policy change was part of regular updates that often happen at the beginning of a league season. The Sixers deferred comment on the policy to the Wells Fargo Center.
CBS3′s Alexandria Hoff initially reported that two fans were ejected by the center Wednesday because they were wearing shirts supporting the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong. But Hoff later deleted her tweet, and a spokesperson for the arena said no fans were officially ejected from Wednesday’s game for China-related attire. Neither of the men responded to a request for comment.
During the NBA preseason, earlier this month, two fans holding “Free Hong Kong” signs were ejected from the stadium during an exhibition game against the Guangzhou Loong-Lions of the Chinese Basketball Association. A spokesperson for the center said that the two were ejected after being warned repeatedly about being disruptive, and that other fans around them were complaining.
Protests about China continue to be a thorn in the side of the NBA, which is grappling with the ramifications of a tweet sent (and quickly deleted) by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey earlier this month that offered support for the protesters in Hong Kong. The Rockets have been particularly popular in China, where basketball is popular, since drafting Yao Ming, the country’s most-famous basketball player, in 2002.
At the Sixers home opener, a pro-Hong Kong group of about 15 people wearing yellow T-shirts protested outside SEPTA’s NRG Station, but did not go inside the arena.
And on Tuesday, a group of protesters wore shirts that read “Fight for Freedom Stand for Hong Kong” outside the Staples Center in Los Angeles ahead of the Lakers’ season opener. Some fans were seen wearing them inside the stadium during the game, but there were no reports of ejections.
Capital One Arena in Washington, where “Free Hong Kong” signs were confiscated during a preseason game, prohibits signs that are “commercial or political in nature.” But many other arenas around the league don’t appear to have specific bans on political material. Madison Square Garden in New York City, the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, and TD Garden in Boston all ban obscene or derogatory signs but don’t prohibit political material outright.
The situation has divided current and former players. Lakers superstar LeBron James drew heat for claiming Morey was “misinformed” about the situation in Hong Kong, while former Sixers great Charles Barkley said “trashing” China could hurt the pockets of both the NBA and Nike.
But fellow Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal said on TNT on Tuesday that regardless of business deals in China, people in America should be able to freely voice their opinions on the matter.
“Daryl Morey was right,” O’Neal said. “Whenever you see something going on wrong anywhere in the world, you should have the right to say that’s not right, and that’s what he did.”
The NBA’s opening night games did not air on Chinese state-owned TV, where they have traditionally been televised. Only the Lakers-Clippers game streamed on Tencent, with which the NBA signed a five-year, $1.5 billion streaming deal in July.
Chinese state TV threatened “retribution” against NBA commissioner Adam Silver for saying the Chinese government wanted him to fire Morey over his tweet. The threat was broadcast across the country Saturday night, according to the New York Times.