ESPN Exposes, Then Hides, Report on Abusive NBA Training Academies in China

Adam Silver/IMAGE: CNN via YouTube

The “woke” NBA – whose players (with few exceptions) wouldn’t stand for the Star-Spangled Banner but do stand human rights abuses in China – had a bumpy reopening last week following this year’s shutdown due to COVID-19.

So did one of its top broadcast partners, ESPN.

As Breitbart (aggregating reports from and The Athletic) reported on Sunday, NBA/ESPN saw its television ratings drop on Friday night following the numbers the league saw on the night of its return from dormancy on Thursday. The sports-starved American public apparently doesn’t have an appetite for millionaire athletes complaining about “systemic racism” while they kneel for the National Anthem and at the same time refuse to decry human rights abuses by the communist Chinese.

Meanwhile ESPN reported about the NBA’s involvement with a training academy in the Chinese province of Xinjiang, where millions of Uigher Muslims are surveilled, harassed and imprisoned for their beliefs and resistance to the government. The article, written by investigative reporters (and brothers) Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada, cited several American coaches placed at academies in China who were sent to find and develop new talent for the NBA. However, the problem with this arrangement was that the academies were owned and run by the Chinese government.

Among the findings from the article:

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…

American coaches were frequently harassed and surveilled in Xinjiang, the sources said. One American coach was detained three times without cause…A former league employee compared the atmosphere when he worked in Xinjiang to “World War II Germany.”…

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…

According to the ESPN report, the NBA did not want current and former employees speaking to the network about the situation, and the sources for the story were kept anonymous because they feared the inability to get employment opportunities with the league in the future.

Unfortunately the excellent ESPN article got little attention outside of its website, because its TV programs did almost nothing to highlight it. This is unusual treatment by the Disney-owned network, which often proudly amplifies the work of its investigative reporters on shows throughout the day. Clearly ESPN did not want to go overboard to harm its partnership with the NBA, to which it pays a reported $1.4 billion per year for the rights to broadcast its games.

Prior to the investigative piece, ESPN’s NBA beat reporters did almost nothing to challenge the league, its leaders and its players about their involvement with China. Meanwhile, the network has eagerly magnified the league’s support for Black Lives Matter and related social justice themes that players are now allowed to promote on their jerseys.

The league, its players and Commissioner Silver have been tone deaf about their hypocrisy in their alliances with the communist Chinese, and the multi-billion dollar market it stands to benefit from, while at the same time very publicly posturing about alleged racial inequality in the United States. The October tweet by Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey, in support of Hong Kong freedom fighters’ resistance to communist oppression, was met with criticism from the league’s sponsors and partners in China. The country ceased broadcasting its games, and Morey was shamed into withdrawing his tweet and apologizing.

Some members of Congress are fed up with the NBA’s double-standard when it comes to its cozy relationship with China, while at the same time its millionaire players bash its national home for mythological “systemic racism.” The ESPN report spurred further criticisms from some Senate Republicans.

“The NBA continues to appease Communist China and refuses to stand up for the people of Hong Kong because they care more about profits than human rights,” said Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, who accused the NBA of turning a blind eye to the abuses at its Chinese academies. “When do we, as freedom-loving Americans, say enough is enough? The NBA must answer for this and immediately tell us when they first knew about the abuse and how they responded.”

In June Tennessee Sen. Marsha Blackburn asked Silver in a letter specifically about the status of the academy in Xinjiang, “one of the world’s worst humanitarian zones.” In a reply, NBA Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum told Blackburn the league “has had no involvement with the Xinjiang basketball academy for more than a year, and the relationship has been terminated.” However, the ESPN reported in its investigative piece:

Two sources disputed that the NBA had any plans to leave Xinjiang in the spring of 2019. One coach said the league was still seeking other coaches to move there well into the summer and that the league’s statement to Blackburn was “completely inaccurate.”

“They were still trying to get people to go out there,” the coach said. “It didn’t end because [Tatum] said, ‘We’re gonna end this.’”

The revelation spurred Blackburn to urge the NBA to come clean about its activities in Xinjiang.

“This report is disturbing and the NBA needs to voluntarily correct the record of their involvement,” Blackburn said.