Sen. Josh Hawley

Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley

Athletes have long been forerunners of diplomacy between squabbling nations: Think about table tennis players in 1971 becoming the first American group to set foot in Beijing for 22 years.

However, an American basketball team has now fueled a controversy back home with comments made in association with a supposed goodwill (and market-building) trip.

The general manager of the Houston Rockets, Daryl Morey, voiced support on Twitter for pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. China, through its state-run television organization, objected to the “inappropriate Hong Kong-related remarks.”

The National Basketball Association, which has a deal worth $1.5 billion with a Chinese streaming service, tried to mitigate the offense taken but, in the process, managed to irk members of the U.S. Congress.

Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, a freshman Republican who is quickly becoming a leading congressional voice against Chinese oppression, weighed in.

“Doing business in China is one thing, but for the NBA to kowtow to the demands of one of the world’s most brutal regimes in the pursuit of profit is, frankly, revolting,” Hawley wrote in a letter to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and all the league’s owners.

“You know better. And the people of this country deserve better.”

Silver had a press conference in Japan on Tuesday where he tried to appease the Chinese while sticking up for the right of free expression of Morey, whose tweet has been removed from the social media site.

In the meantime, Houston Rockets star James Harden apologized for the remarks of the team’s executive.

“You know, we love China. We love playing there,” Harden said. “We appreciate them as a fan base. We love everything there about them, and we appreciate the support that they give us individually and as an organization.”

Hawley expressed “disgust” over the league’s stance.

“When Daryl Morey ... tweeted in support of the demonstrators, the NBA swiftly condemned not the violence and repression in Hong Kong, but Morey’s show of support for democracy,” Hawley wrote to Silver.

“What is regrettable is the suppression and political violence carried out by the Chinese Communist Party against the good people of Hong Kong.”

Other lawmakers jumped into the fray. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, said that American retailers, airlines, hotel chains and other businesses “self-censor” in fear of jeopardizing their hold on the mammoth Chinese market.

“This is bigger than just the NBA,” the senator said. “It’s about China’s growing ability to restrict freedom of expression here in the U.S.”

The Democratic leader in the Senate, Chuck Schumer of New York, joined the chorus of criticism.

“No one should implement a gag rule on Americans speaking out for freedom,” he said. “I stand with the people of Hong Kong in their pursuit of democratic rights. I stand with Americans who want to voice their support for the people of Hong Kong.”

Ken Newton can be reached at Follow him on Twitter: @SJNPNewton.