In 2016, the NBA announced the launch of “NBA Academies.” The first three were placed in China, including one in Xinjiang.
NBA press release at the time:
NBA Academies will support existing international basketball academies by exposing elite prospects to NBA-level coaching, facilities and competition and by providing a global framework for elite-level prospects to maximize their success. The initiative will employ a holistic, 360-degree approach to player development with focuses on education, leadership, character development and life skills.
What actually happened?
One American coach who worked for the NBA in China described the project as “a sweat camp for athletes.”
One former coach described watching a Chinese coach fire a ball into a young player’s face at point-blank range and then “kick him in the gut.”
“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.”
In Xinjiang, players lived in cramped dormitories; the rooms were meant for two people, but a former coach said bunk beds were used to put as many as eight to 10 athletes in a room. Players trained two or three times a day and had few extracurricular activities. NBA coaches and officials became concerned that although education had been announced as a pillar of the academy program, the sports bureaus did not provide formal schooling.
Most of the players who trained at the NBA’s Xinjiang academy were Uighurs, but it was unclear to league employees who spoke with ESPN if any were impacted by the government crackdown.
This is shameful.
The NBA espouses American values in the United States… but not always in China.
There’s room to respect cultural differences, and business partnerships can be a bridge toward mutual understanding. But the NBA never should have tolerated this harsh treatment of children.
It’s especially problematic given the NBA’s financial interest in condoning Chinese authoritarianism. Rockets general manager Daryl Morey’s tweet (which supported Hong Kong protesters who are trying to maintain and expand their freedoms) and the resulting fallout highlighted the tension. And though the NBA has terminated its relationship with the Xinjiang academy, this issue isn’t going away.
To be fair, the NBA is far from the only American company doing business in China. It has become fashionable in some circles to pick on the NBA for its relationship with China. But the NBA is not unique.
That said, the NBA’s close ties to these abuses rise to a different level. This is complicity more than tolerance.