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A fateful tweet about a free Hong Kong reportedly wasn’t the beginning of the NBA’s trouble with China in recent years.
Before Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey sparked a firestorm in the NBA’s most lucrative international market, the league had encountered rampant problems at its three basketball academies in China, according to a blistering report from ESPN's Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada.
Among the biggest reported issues were a culture of physical abuse by Chinese coaches, players not receiving proper education, brutal living conditions for players, police harassment of American coaches and one camp being located in the province of Xinjiang, where a million Uighur Muslims are being held in concentration camps as the Chinese government attempts to erase their culture. All of this was reportedly compounded by a lack of NBA oversight in an authoritarian country.
The NBA recently admitted it had closed its camp in Xinjiang after being pressed by a U.S. Senator, but declined to reveal why and did not indicate if it had also done so with its camps in Zhejiang and Shandong.
What went wrong with the NBA’s China academies
Opened with much fanfare in 2016, the NBA’s three Chinese academies were hailed by NBA commissioner Adam Silver as a place for elite Chinese basketball talent to be developed by NBA-trained coaches on and off the court.
The potential benefits of such an enterprise were obvious: A closer relationship with a country worth billions to the league and the development of even more Chinese NBA players. As the ESPN report notes, the NBA’s Chinese revenues exploded thanks to the career of Yao Ming, and league employees reportedly admitted the intention of the academies was to find the next Yao Ming.
What the NBA’s coaches saw along the way was reportedly shocking:
One requested and received a transfer after watching Chinese coaches strike teenage players, three sources told ESPN. Another American coach left before the end of his contract because he found the lack of education in the academies unconscionable: "I couldn't continue to show up every day, looking at these kids and knowing they would end up being taxi drivers," he said.
Despite China’s ban on corporal punishment in schools in 1986, the practice remains widespread and culturally embedded in the country, which became very clear to NBA staff at the academies.
One former coach reportedly accounted watching a Chinese coach hurl a ball into a young player’s face then kick him in the stomach:
"Imagine you have a kid who's 13, 14 years old, and you've got a grown coach who is 40 years old hitting your kid," the coach said. "We're part of that. The NBA is part of that."
Players were reportedly housed in cramped dorms, with one coach saying that a room meant for two people ended up housing 8-10 athletes. Players were reportedly trained 2-3 times a day with little time for anything else, especially education.
One American coach also reported being stopped by police three times in 10 months and detained for two hours because he didn’t have his passport. Foreign staff were also reportedly unable to rent housing in Xinjiang and had to live at local hotels.
NBA’s blind eye on Uighurs a black mark
When the league’s reaction to Morey’s tweet caused bipartisan political criticism, scrutiny began to build over the NBA’s Xinjiang academy. The Xinjiang province, an area in Western China nearly the size of Alaska, has reportedly been the site of rampant human rights abuses against Uighur Muslims.
There is so much to know about the plight of the Uighurs, but the basics are this: The Uighurs are an ethnic minority in Xinjiang that have seen an estimated 1 million of their people systematically imprisoned in reeducation camps, all under the guise of fighting terrorism. Inmates recall experiences of brainwashing and torture. Many more Uighurs are pushed into working as cheap labor in factories.
As The Guardian accounts, it is the largest mass internment of an ethnic-religious minority since World War II. So, it’s not hard to see why some would have problems with the NBA setting up camp in the capital city of that same region.
NBA chief operating officer Mark Tatum, who is in charge of the league’s international operations, told ESPN the league also wasn’t aware of the human rights issues in Xinjiang when it announced its academies. The league ended up shuttering the academy, doing so quietly because it likely didn’t want to anger the Chinese government.
Per ESPN, Tatum repeatedly avoided questions on whether or not Xinjiang’s human rights abuses led to the academy’s closing:
"My job, our job is not to take a position on every single human rights violation, and I'm not an expert in every human rights situation or violation," Tatum said. "I'll tell you what the NBA stands for: The values of the NBA are about respect, are about inclusion, are about diversity. That is what we stand for."
What did the NBA know about its Chinese academies?
One issue that comes up repeatedly in ESPN’s report is how much the NBA did or didn’t know about what was going on in the camps that held the league’s name.
Tatum indicated he didn’t know about complaints to the league, and coaches reportedly believed that lack of knowledge allowed the camps to continue:
Two of the former NBA employees separately told ESPN that coaches at the academies regularly speculated about whether Silver had been informed about the problems. "I said, 'If [Silver] shows up, we're all fired immediately,'" one of the coaches said.
Tatum said the NBA received "a handful" of complaints that Chinese coaches had mistreated young players and immediately informed local authorities that the league had "zero tolerance" for behavior that was "antithetical to our values." Tatum said the incidents were not reported at the time to league officials in New York, including himself or Silver.
NBA employees reportedly told ESPN much of the problem was the league’s decision to place the academies in government-run facilities, which gave Chinese officials the power to select the players and determine the training:
"We were basically working for the Chinese government," one former coach said.
NBA was already under fire over China
The NBA was already facing questions from two Republican Senators on its relationship with China. One letter led to the admission that the Xinjiang facility had been closed, while the other led to ESPN basketball reporter Adrian Wojnarowski’s suspension.
The revelation of the NBA allowing the Chinese government to basically run its academies as young players faced deplorable conditions, with one in an area that is experiencing a potential genocide, probably won’t help matters.
The NBA obviously has a lot on its plate as it reboot its season in Disney World while navigating a pandemic and unrest over racial injustice following the killing of George Floyd, but such a report on its Chinese camps is clearly antithetical for the political direction the league is trying to take:
"You can't have it both ways," the former employee said. "... You can't be over here in February promoting Black History Month and be over in China, where they're in reeducation camps and all the people that you're partnering with are hitting kids."
The NBA’s relationship with China — which, remember, was the end goal here — has also remained fractured as the government continues to keep NBA games off state television, costing the league hundreds of millions of dollars.
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