Back in October, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey’s tweet supporting pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong caused tension between the NBA and China, causing the Chinese government to blackout the league’s games on state television.
But it appears the NBA’s relationship with China, and the $5 billion market in the country, is much more twisted than that.
According to an ESPN investigation into NBA China launched after Morey’s tweets, the league received multiple complaints about the abuse of young athletes and lack of education provided inside a youth-development program in China.
The allegations, raised by American coaches working at three NBA training academies in the country, compared the atmosphere to “World War II Germany” and a “sweat camp for athletes,” per the reporting of Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada.
The NBA employees spoke to ESPN on the condition of anonymity as to not risk their careers, despite the league advising against it. According to the investigation, NBA public relations officials even requested that employees not mention to ESPN that they’d been asked by the league to not respond to interview requests.
“The ESPN investigation, which began after Morey’s tweet, sheds new light on the lucrative NBA-China relationship and the costs of doing business with a government that suppresses free expression and is accused of cultural genocide,” the report said. “It illustrates the challenges of operating in a society with markedly different approaches to issues such as discipline, education and security.”
The culture at these academies reportedly caused at least two coaches to leave their positions after witnessing abuse, and another to request a transfer after watching Chinese coaches strike teenage players. Other allegations described players who suffered from heat exhaustion, had basketballs thrown in their face at point-blank range, were kicked in the stomach and crammed into dorms with eight to 10 other players in rooms made for just two people.
A condition central to the program was for athletes to receive schooling, but Chinese partners reportedly failed to do so in addition to the abuse.
“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,'” the report said.
At one particular academy located in Xinjiang, a police state in western China where Uighur Muslims are held in barbed-wire camps, American coaches frequently were surveilled, detained without cause and harassed, per ESPN.
The program was launched in 2016 as a means of developing local talent in China, and the Xinjiang academy has been shut down as of recently. But NBA deputy and chief operating officer Mark Tatum declined to tell the reporters if human rights concerns were a factor in its closing.
With this report out, we’ll see how relations between the NBA and Chinese government carry on.