Questions about the lucrative partnership between the National Basketball Association (NBA) and China have resurfaced after a recent report alleged human rights abuses within the league’s player development program in the communist nation.
The ESPN investigation followed a geopolitical incident from last fall, when a social media post from Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey revealed the complications that can arise when doing business with an authoritarian regime.
“Fight for Freedom,” Morey tweeted last October. “Stand with Hong Kong.”
The message expressed support for pro-democracy demonstrators who had taken to the streets, opposing a bill that would allow for the extradition of dissidents to mainland China for prosecution. Although the tweet was quickly deleted, it instantly tarnished the NBA’s standing with the Chinese.
The league reacted by issuing a statement that said Morey’s words “deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China, which is regrettable.”
The Chinese government appeared to interpret Morey’s tweet as an attack on its national sovereignty, which state-run China Central Television (CCTV) said was “not within the scope of freedom of speech.” The network hasn’t aired an NBA game since. All of the league’s corporate partners in China suspended their contracts. And NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said the Chinese demanded Morey lose his job.
— CBS News (@CBSNews) October 24, 2019
“There’s no chance we’ll even discipline him,” Silver said, later projecting the controversy would result in “hundreds of millions of dollars” in lost revenue.
While it remains unclear whether Beijing’s state television will resume airing NBA games, some have started to scrutinize the league’s ongoing experiment with globalization. Lawmakers from across the political spectrum, from Republican Senator Ted Cruz (TX) to Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY), have accused the NBA of selling out an American citizen to retain its piece of the largest consumer market on the planet.
Here are six things you need to know about the NBA’s joint ventures with China.
1. The NBA has strategically targeted China’s consumer market for decades.
The league’s partnership with Communist China began more than 30 years ago under the leadership of former NBA Commissioner David Stern. A superstar named Michael Jordan was in the midst of leading the Chicago Bulls to its first three-peat championship run, and Stern had visions of elevating the league’s global presence. According to the Associated Press, Stern “even talked about having an NBA-sponsored or branded league in China.”
After Stern died from complications from a brain hemorrhage in January, Jordan said the NBA’s longest-serving commissioner “grew the league into an international phenomenon, creating opportunities that few could have imagined before.”
Lots of love being shown on Chinese social media today for David Stern, whose China strategy remains the blueprint for ALL sports leagues. Refreshing to see politics being placed to one side, despite the league's ongoing challenges here. https://t.co/nXnFe64s1R
— Mark Dreyer (@DreyerChina) January 2, 2020
The Guardian previously reported:
In 1992 under the late David Stern, Silver’s predecessor as commissioner, the NBA opened its first Asian office in Hong Kong. Stern, who served as commissioner from 1984 until 2014, is widely credited for exporting the league to China. In 1987, Stern went to Beijing with a demo tape in hand in the hopes of brokering a historic deal. There, he forged a relationship between the NBA and CCTV, offering the state broadcaster videotapes of league footage each week in exchange for advertising revenue. Stern often recalled trips to the country in the 1990s, when locals would ask about the “team of the red oxen,” better known in the English speaking world as the Chicago Bulls.
But the watershed moment came in 2002, when Yao Ming was drafted by the Rockets. In Yao, China could finally claim its own first bona fide star playing in its most beloved sporting league. Powered by ballots cast back home, Yao was twice the leader of NBA All-Star game fan voting. He was named an All-Star in each of his eight seasons for the Rockets, a career that coincided with the NBA staging more events in China. In 2004, the Rockets played a pair of preseason games in Shanghai and Beijing, marking the first time the NBA tipped off on Chinese soil in 25 years… NBA China, which launched in 2008 and handles the league’s business ventures in the country, is worth more than $4bn, according to Forbes.
Yao’s Hall of Fame career resulted in the Rockets becoming the most famous NBA brand in China. However, in the fallout from Morey’s tweet, the Los Angeles Times reported that the “Chinese fans of the Rockets appear to have it the worst,” noting that the team had been “completely blocked from mention” in Chinese media covering NBA games. Yao is currently the chairman of the Chinese Basketball Association, which also cut ties with the team. Commissioner Silver said Yao was “extremely hot” after Morey’s tweet.
China has nearly 1.4 billion inhabitants, more than four times the population of the United States. Almost 500 million of them watched NBA games last season. Put in proper perspective, about 330 million people reside in America.
Last year, the league extended its contract with a Chinese streaming network for five years through the 2024-25 season. The deal was reportedly worth $1.5 billion.
2. ESPN report alleges physical abuse within the NBA player development program in China.
In 2016, the NBA launched three league-run academies in China to train and develop prospects to star on its international stage. Sources told ESPN the main objective was to “find another Yao.”
During an ESPN investigation, American coaches at three NBA training academies in China told league officials their Chinese partners were physically abusing young players.
A former employee compared when he worked in Xinjiang to "World War II Germany." https://t.co/nd4a5njAcx
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) July 29, 2020
According to the report, several American coaches who had been brought to China to work in the training academies informed “league officials” that “their Chinese partners were physically abusing young players.” Sources told ESPN that some of the program’s Chinese coaches had been observed striking the youths, while one “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,’” the report said.
“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,” an ESPN source said. “We’re part of that. The NBA is part of that.”
The investigation found that Americans involved with the program also expressed concerns over cramped living quarters for the supposed student-athletes. Some coaches accused the Chinese of “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 report said.
American coaches claimed they “were frequently harassed and surveilled” while working at the academy in Xinjiang, which the outlet described as “a region notorious for human rights abuses.”
“We weren’t responsible for the local coaches, we didn’t have the authority,” said Mark Tatum, NBA Deputy Commissioner and Chief Operating Officer. “We don’t have oversight of the local coaches, of the academic programs or the living conditions. It’s fair to say we were less involved than we wanted to be.”
As ESPN reported:
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, 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.
The NBA advised former and current employees not to speak with ESPN as reporters investigated the alleged abuses within the development program, the report found.
The league recently said it “has had no involvement with the Xinjiang basketball academy for more than a year, and the relationship has been terminated.”
3. Alleged human rights atrocities in China’s Xinjiang Province.
According to the ESPN investigation, “Tatum said the NBA wasn’t aware of political tensions or human rights issues in Xinjiang when it announced it was launching the training academy there in 2016.” The report went on to note that “the issue became the subject of increasing media coverage within the United States” in the spring of 2018.
The outlet referenced a Slate article published in August 2018, headlined, “Why is the NBA in Xinjiang? The league is running a training center in the middle of one of the world’s worst humanitarian atrocities.”
As Slate reported nearly two years ago:
In the northwestern Chinese region of Xinjiang, Chinese authorities are holding roughly a million Muslims in what the government propaganda creepily calls “free hospital treatment for the masses with sick thinking” – in other words, concentration camps. Because of the difficulties of visiting the camps, and because Beijing downplays their existence, firsthand information is sparse. However, satellite photos, innovative research on government procurement bids, and excellent reporting by foreign journalists prove their existence. Some inmates are tortured. Others are forced to sit for hours singing songs praising the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
For the region’s Muslims, most of whom belong to a Turkic-speaking minority known as Uighurs, the violations extend beyond imprisonment. Uighurs in Xinjiang can’t wear veils or “abnormal” beards. In late 2017, Chinese authorities reportedly ordered them to relinquish prayer mats and Qurans. It’s difficult for Uighurs to leave their homes without omnipresent police scanning their faces with dystopian accuracy, ostensibly as part of the hunt for “terrorists.” Police require them to install an app – whose name translates to “web cleansing” – on their phones that alerts local authorities to “dangerous” content. They can’t even own certain types of knives without registering them because of fears they will use them for violence. On Aug. 10, a member of a United Nations human rights panel condemned Beijing for turning the region into a “sort of ‘no rights zone.’”
According to Slate, the NBA did not respond to requests for comment on that report. China has denied holding ethnic Uighurs and other Muslims in detention centers.
4. There’s a new NBA China boss.
In May, the NBA announced that Michael Ma, a Chinese citizen and veteran sports executive, had been named as the organization’s new China CEO.
The NBA has named veteran sports executive Michael Ma to lead its business in mainland China — one of its most important markets — as the league continues to deal with fallout from an ugly political storm last year. https://t.co/9Cc3NzGkk7
— CNN (@CNN) May 13, 2020
CNN reported that “Ma’s appointment has been seen in China as an attempt to appease fans there after the NBA fell into a nightmare crisis last fall,” and:
According to Chinese state media, Ma is the son of Ma Guoli, who co-founded CCTV’s sports channel and helped “introduce NBA live games to CCTV in the 1990s.” His father is also a renowned basketball executive and adviser to former NBA Rockets star and legend Yao Ming, who now leads the Chinese Basketball Association.
According to the CNN report, “the NBA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.”
The Global Times, a Chinese state-run news outlet, wrote:
The National Basketball Association (NBA) has appointed a Chinese national as its China branch boss, but prominent commentators and fans noted if it wants to win its way back to the Chinese mainland market, it should properly handle Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey – who tweeted in support of Hong Kong rioters last year, leading to significant disappointment and a boycott by the Chinese public, including major broadcast partners.
5. NBA stars also have endorsement deals with Chinese companies.
Players have a vested interest in the NBA’s estimated $500 million from China each year because that revenue influences the salary cap, which determines how much money is available to pay them. But overseas endorsement deals often provide a more significant income boost for the league’s most prominent cultural icons. USA Today reports:
Separate from the NBA’s partnerships in China, players are invested in the country, too. Several of them, including stars LeBron James and Steph Curry, make annual visits to sell apparel products from Nike and Under Armour.
Chinese apparel companies have also signed NBA players to endorsement deals: Klay Thompson and Gordon Hayward with Anta, CJ McCollum with Li-Ning and Lou Williams with Peak. Thompson’s deal with Anta could reach $80 million over 10 years, according to ESPN. Williams has said he earns more from his endorsement deal than he does playing.
Retired Miami Heat standout Dwyane Wade signed a lifetime contract with Li-Ning, a company that also makes footwear, in 2018. Other NBA stars who have benefited from Chinese-based endorsement deals include Rajon Rondo, Evan Turner, and Matthew Dellavedova.
The late Kobe Bryant is recognized as the first NBA icon to fully capitalize on his marketing potential in China, visiting the country annually for two decades.
Kobe Bryant wasn’t the first NBA player to visit China, but he was the first player to realize China’s potential. https://t.co/bCpFNMGQPR
— USA TODAY (@USATODAY) February 21, 2020
Bryant told reporters during a visit last year, “I watched it develop from the ground up. I watched the city (Beijing) grow, watched the passion for the game develop.”
6. A U.S. Senator accused the NBA’s biggest star of “parroting communist propaganda.”
Several politicians slammed LeBron James after the NBA’s biggest star criticized Morey’s tweet as “misinformed” last fall.
“We all do have freedom of speech, but at times there are ramifications for the negative that can happen when you’re not thinking about others, and only thinking about yourself,” James had said. “I don’t want to get into a word or sentence feud with Daryl Morey, but I believe he wasn’t educated on the situation at hand, and he spoke. And so many people could have been harmed, not only financially, but physically, emotionally, spiritually.”
— Senator Ben Sasse (@SenSasse) October 15, 2019
This statement is unbelievable. “So many people could have been harmed”? By Daryl Morey daring to express sympathy for democracy? News flash: people ARE being harmed – shot, beaten, gassed – right now in Hong Kong. By China. By the Communist Party the NBA is so eager to appease
— Josh Hawley (@HawleyMO) October 15, 2019
Republican Sen. Ben Sasse (Nebraska) told James he was “parroting communist propaganda.”
“It’s sad to see him join the chorus kowtowing to Community China & putting profits over human rights for #HongKong,” tweeted Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.).
Even former Ohio Governor John Kasich mildly chided King James.
.@KingJames really missed his shot last night. We all need to stand with Hong Kong and speak out in favor of freedom — even when it may have financial costs. We are all Hong Kongers. #StandwithHongKong
— John Kasich (@JohnKasich) October 15, 2019
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) recently sent a letter to Commissioner Silver questioning why players are permitted to wear messages promoting social justice and the Black Lives Matter movement on their jerseys, but statements in support of human rights in China are excluded.
In a recent column published by the National Review, Victor Davis Hanson argues that some players have become tools of the Chinese. He writes, “part of the NBA woke/hip/cool/edgy brand is to trash the ‘establishment’ that has ensured the foundations of its multibillion-dollar-empire,” and:
For the NBA brand, it seems to make much better business sense to routinely damn democratic, diverse, and free America, but not the racialist, Communist, and outlaw China. The former’s audience is changing, touchy, and shrinking; the latter’s is uniform, predictable, and growing.
Wokeness has lost some market share inside the U.S., but such perceived anti-Americanism helps to win it back – and more – in China. Beijing, of course, sees anti-American-sounding American athletes as high-profile useful idiots – a fact no doubt known to the receptive players and coaches of the NBA who willingly and sincerely play their parts.