Multiple coaches at three NBA training academies in China complained to NBA officials that their Chinese counterparts were abusing young players, failing to provide schooling, and taking advantage of the NBA’s U.S. connections, according to an ESPN investigation.
The NBA’s training camp in Xinjiang was a particularly bad environment, where American coaches were frequently harassed by Chinese Communist Party officials, surveilled, and detained without cause.
One former league employee compared the NBA’s Xinjiang camp to “World War II Germany.”
One American coach who worked for the NBA in China described its academies as a “sweat camp for athletes.”
At least two coaches left their positions because of the way Chinese officials mistreated their players, and one requested a transfer after reportedly watching Chinese officials physically strike teenage players.
Moreover, the lack of schooling at these facilities alarmed one coach, especially since NBA Commissioner Adam Silver had vowed to make education central to the program. But nothing ever changed, according to one coach.
“I couldn’t continue to show up every day, looking at these kids and knowing they would end up being taxi drivers,” he told ESPN.
The coaches took these complaints directly to NBA executives.
Multiple coaches went to Greg Stolt, the league’s vice president for international operations for NBA China, and at least two NBA employees wondered whether Silver had been informed as well.
Even Tatum admitted that the NBA had received “a handful” of complaints about Chinese officials’ abuse and neglect, citing at least four incidents that were never actually addressed.
When asked why the NBA failed to act on these complaints, Tatum said: “We did everything that we could, given the limited oversight we had.”
The NBA finally closed its Xinjiang facility this year, but the league refused to say whether China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang, where nearly one million Uighur Muslims are imprisoned in concentration camps, had anything to do with it.
Instead, NBA Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum claimed that the facility was being closed because the NBA didn’t have as much “oversight” as it would have liked.
“We were somewhat humbled,” Tatum said, admitting that the NBA might have been “a little bit naive.”
“One of the lessons that we’ve learned here is that we do need to have more direct oversight and the ability to make staffing changes when appropriate,” he said.
The training academies in China are an integral part of the NBA’s financial relationship with the Chinese market.
After the rise of Houston Rockets player Yao Ming, NBA executives wanted the Chinese academies to serve one purpose: “Find another Yao,” according to two former NBA employees, who said the league was obsessed with maintaining its lucrative partnership with China.
But as a result, NBA employees based in China ended up “basically working for the Chinese government,” one former coach said.
Republican legislators have challenged the NBA to explain why it has maintained this relationship for so long despite the obvious human rights abuses and blatant disregard for decency.
Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., has called on Silver to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., has demanded to know why the NBA has time to advocate for liberal social justice policies, but not for the rights of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang.
Tatum responded to Blackburn’s questions and said the NBA had not been involved in Xinjiang for over a year, but at least two sources told ESPN that the NBA’s training camp in the region was still operating as late as spring of 2019.
“While the NBA has worked hard to raise awareness of social issues at home, there is concern that the league has turned a blind eye to human rights abuses committed abroad — even bowing down to pressure last year… The actions of the NBA and some players have created an appearance that your league prioritizes profit over principle,” Blackburn said in a statement.
Hawley responded to the ESPN report and said Congress needs to investigate why it has taken the NBA so long to address legitimate complaints made by its employees over its dealings with China.
“This is big-time money for the NBA, and I think we do deserve to know exactly what they’re making,” Hawley said. “And we deserve to have them explain to us why they won’t stand up to this authoritarian regime.”