[guest post by JVW]
Update, 7:30 pm: Somebody is apparently feeling the heat and has gone to CYA mode. Earlier today some intrepid fans discovered that you cannot order a custom NBA jersey from the online Fanatics NBA store with “Free Hong Kong” printed on the back in the name area. After several people began tweeting about this, including Florida Governor Rick Scott and Missouri Senator Josh Hawley, the ban was quickly (and quietly) lifted. According to this Fox News report, the NBA is blaming the problem on Fanatics, but given the NBA’s craven nature it’s not hard to imagine that they were behind the original ban.
—- Original Post —-
Today begins the resumption of the NBA regular season after a four-plus month coronavirus shutdown. Last night ESPN let loose with a bombshell report about the mistreatment of basketball prospects in NBA-sponsored youth basketball academies in China. The report does not paint a flattering picture [all bolded emphasis is added by me]:
Long before an October tweet in support of Hong Kong protesters spotlighted the NBA’s complicated relationship with China, the league faced complaints from its own employees over human rights concerns inside an NBA youth-development program in that country, an ESPN investigation has found.
American coaches at three NBA training academies in China told league officials their Chinese partners were physically abusing young players and failing to provide schooling, even though commissioner Adam Silver had said that education would be central to the program, according to multiple sources with direct knowledge of the complaints.
The NBA ran into myriad problems by opening one of the academies in Xinjiang, a police state in western China where more than a million Uighur Muslims are now held in barbed-wire camps. American coaches were frequently harassed and surveilled in Xinjiang, the sources said. One American coach was detained three times without cause; he and others were unable to obtain housing because of their status as foreigners.
That’s right: the league which believes that pampered millionaires are appropriate figures to instruct us in the intricacies of daily interactions taking place in high-crime areas between law enforcement and members of underserved communities is standing by while business partners from a totalitarian police state physically abuse minors, some of who are from ethnic minorities within China’s borders. Flash back to this past fall when Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey tweeted out support for dissidents in Hong Kong fighting the repressive policies of Beijing, which caused the communist government to pull NBA games off of state television and ban the sale of Houston Rockets gear within the country. This in turn led to star players such as LeBron James and James Harden criticizing Morey for taking the side of a beleaguered people fighting for freedom, partly because it hurt their ability to sell signature overpriced athletic wear made by low-paid Indonesians working for a grandiose shoe company who also styles themselves as painfully woke.
Now of course those same NBA players and coaches have adopted in toto the agenda of Black Lives Matter, treating fans to pre-approved social justice messages in place of the player’s name on the backs of uniforms, but “Free Hong Kong” and “Uyghurs Have Rights Too” are not among them. Nor is “Hands Off of Young Athletes.”
One American coach who worked for the NBA in China described the project as “a sweat camp for athletes.”
At least two coaches left their positions in response to what they believed was mistreatment of young players.
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.
Not long after the academies opened, multiple coaches complained about the physical abuse and lack of schooling to Greg Stolt, the league’s vice president for international operations for NBA China, and to other league officials in China, the sources said. It was unclear whether the information was passed on to NBA officials in New York, they said. The NBA declined to make Stolt available for comment.
The NBA salivates over the 1.4 billion residents of China, where 150 million of them watch an NBA game at some point over the course of the year. ESPN, who is an NBA broadcast partner and thus has a seat on the league’s board of directors, estimates that the Chinese market provides $5 billion in revenue to the league each season. In addition to the marketing opportunities, NBA teams dream of finding the next Yao Ming, who averaged nearly 20 points and 10 rebounds over a seven-year NBA career and cemented the relationship between the league and the communist dictatorship for good. Indeed, the coaches whom the NBA sent overseas to work these academies report that they were given instructions to be on the lookout for “the next Yao.”
But the NBA would learn the lesson that Apple, Google, and so many other U.S. companies have learned about engaging in commerce in a semi-closed society: business is done on their terms, not yours.
The NBA employees who spoke with ESPN said many of the league’s problems stemmed from the decision to embed the academies in government-run sports facilities. The facilities gave the NBA access to existing infrastructure and elite players, [NBA Chief Operating Officer Mark] Tatum said. But the arrangement put NBA activities under the direction of Chinese officials who selected the players and helped define the training.
“We were basically working for the Chinese government,” one former coach said.
And forget the idea of finding and developing the new Yao. The Chinese government is keeping their most elite young players in government-sponsored basketball academies far away from the American coaches, leaving the NBA to deal primarily with second-tier youth players. Hearing stories of player abuse, heavy surveillance and occasional harassment of U.S. coaches, abandonment of the promise to provide an education for the young athletes, and lack of access to the cream of Chinese youth basketball, and facing bipartisan criticism from Congress about their cozy and subservient relationship with a repressive dictatorship, the NBA has apparently quietly pulled the plug in Xinjiang:
Sometime shortly after Morey’s October tweet, the [Xinjiang] academy webpage was taken down.
Pressed by ESPN, Tatum repeatedly avoided questions on whether the widespread human rights abuses in Xinjiang played a role in closing the academy, instead citing “many factors.”
“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.”
Nury Turkel, a Uighur American activist who has been heavily involved in lobbying the U.S. government on Uighur rights, told ESPN before the NBA said it had left Xinjiang that he believed the league had been indirectly legitimizing “crimes against humanity.”
One former league employee who worked in China wondered how the NBA, which has been so progressive on issues around Black Lives Matter and moved the 2017 All-Star Game out of Charlotte, North Carolina, over a law requiring transgender people to use bathrooms corresponding to the sex listed on their birth certificates, could operate a training camp amid a Chinese government crackdown that also targeted NBA employees.
“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.”
Unsurprisingly, in order to avoid embarrassing their Chinese clients the NBA made no announcement about the closure of the Xinjiang academy, and they deny knowledge of the harassment of league coaches even though one of them, Corbin Loubert, confirmed these practices in a tweet to CNN last year. The decision to close the academy appears to have been made on the spur of the moment, not after a period of careful deliberation. Up until the moment the academy was shuttered, an anonymous coach told ESPN, the league was still trying to hire staffers to send to Xianjiang. And as far as I can tell, the other two academies in Zhejiang and Shandong remain open, as does the NBA China office in Shanghi.
Business interests who want to operate in China should carefully consider the ramifications of doing so, and they should have the honesty to reconsider their strategy of hyper-woke marketing at home when they enable brutally repressive regimes in far-flung corners of the world. Just as Apple’s Tim Cook ostentatiously calls for boycotts of U.S. states which don’t conform to the Silicon Valley ethos on sex and gender while simultaneously seeking to sell his product to countries where homosexuality is still illegal and in some cases punishable by death, the NBA needs to think through its abject pandering to the shrillest elements of the wokerati while happily partnering with deep-pocketed police states. I’ve come to expect so little from multi-billion-dollar entertainment conglomerates, but is it too much to ask that “Uyghur Lives Matter” be stenciled on an NBA court once or twice this season?