A bombshell report from ESPN claims that well before the league sided with China against Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey and the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement, the league was fully aware of systemic and rampant abuse at their academies inside the communist country.
According to Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada of ESPN:
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.
A former league employee compared the atmosphere when he worked in Xinjiang to ‘World War II Germany.’
Still, despite the Chinese government betrayal of the the educational component of their deal along with the multiple and serious allegations of player abuse and harassment of American coaches, the NBA’s Deputy Commissioner and Chief Operating Officer Mark Tatum, declined to directly criticize China and described the problem as merely a lack of “oversight.”
“We were somewhat humbled,” Tatum said of the academy fiasco in China. “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.”
ESPN launched their investigation into the NBA-China relationship shortly after Daryl Morey’s tweet in support of Hong Kong pro-democracy demonstrators in October.
Fainaru and Fainaru-Wada continue, “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. It illustrates the challenges of operating in a society with markedly different approaches to issues such as discipline, education and security. The reporting is based on interviews with several former NBA employees with direct knowledge of the league’s activities in China, particularly the player-development program.”
A particularly troubling aspect of the report is the claim that the NBA knew about the abuses at the academy in China and not only failed to take substantive action, but directed their current and former employees to not speak with ESPN about the story. Moreover, the league took the extra step, reportedly, of telling those current and former employees not to say that the league had told them not to talk to ESPN.
“Most of the former employees spoke on the condition of anonymity because they feared damaging their chances for future employment,” Fainaru and Fainaru-Wada wrote. “NBA officials asked current and former employees not to speak with ESPN for this story. In an email to one former coach, a public relations official added: ‘Please don’t mention that you have been advised by the NBA not to respond.'”
“One American coach who worked for the NBA in China described the project as ‘a sweat camp for athletes.'”
The complaints from the coaches, many of whom either left their positions or requested transfers after no longer being able to deal with watching the abuse, apparently went to league officials responsible for overseeing international operations in China.
Though, it’s unclear where the complaints went from there.
“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.”
Though, Tatum described the complaints as amounting to only a mere “handful,” and was quick to say that none of them had reached him or the commissioner.
“I will tell you that the health and wellness of academy athletes and everyone who participates in our program is of the utmost priority,” Tatum said. “We did everything that we could, given the limited oversight we had.”
However, three sources who worked for the NBA China claim that the abusive incidents at the academy were far more prevalent than Tatum suggests.
Fainaru and Fainaru-Wada describe an incident witnessed by one of the coaches at the academy.
“The NBA brought in elite coaches and athletic trainers with experience in the G League and Division I basketball to work at the academies. 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.”
The NBA recently closed its academy in Xinjiang province, a police state where Uighur Muslims toil in slave labor camps. Though, in closing the academy, the league wouldn’t even say that the abuse led to the closure. Instead, Tatum merely said the closure was the result of “many factors.”
The NBA season restarts on Thursday night when the New Orleans Pelicans and Utah Jazz tip-off from the bubble in Orlando. Both teams are expected to engage in social justice protests prior to the game.
Follow Dylan Gwinn on Twitter @themightygwinn