NBA accused of running 'sweat camp' in China where kids were abused: ESPN

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver speaks at a press conference before Game 2 of the NBA Finals basketball series between the San Antonio Spurs and the Miami Heat in San Antonio, Texas, June 8, 2014.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver speaks at a press conference before Game 2 of the NBA Finals basketball series between the San Antonio Spurs and the Miami Heat in San Antonio, Texas, June 8, 2014. | REUTERS/Mike Stone

A new investigation by ESPN has raised questions about potential human rights abuses within a National Basketball Association-run development program in China, with one former coach accusing the program of being a “sweat camp” run by the Chinese government. 

On Wednesday, the Disney-owned sports network published an explosive report citing  American coaches who have complained of how their Chinese counterparts at three NBA training academies in China physically abused young players and failed to provide schooling.

The report, which cited former NBA employees and coaches, comes as many have voiced concerns about the U.S.-based basketball league’s business interests and relationships with China. 

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The report states that the three camps established in 2016 as an attempt to develop players in China were operated out of sporting facilities run by the Chinese communist government, which has been accused of a myriad of human rights abuses. 

According to two former league employees, the launching of the academy was done to find more players like former NBA all-star center Yao Ming, who was an internationally popular Chinese-born star who played for the Houston Rockets. 

“We were basically working for the Chinese government," one former coach told ESPN on condition of anonymity. 

An unnamed American coach described the project to ESPN as being like “a sweat camp for athletes."

According to ESPN, at least two coaches left their position in opposition to what they viewed as the mistreatment of young players. Three sources told ESPN that one coach requested and received a transfer after watching Chinese coaches “strike” teenage players.

One coach claimed that he saw another coach throw a ball at a young player's face at close 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 unnamed coach said. "We're part of that. The NBA is part of that."

One American coach told ESPN that he left before the end of his contract due to the lack of education being provided for the young participants. 

"I couldn't continue to show up every day, looking at these kids and knowing they would end up being taxi drivers," he said.

One of the camps, which the NBA confirmed was closed over a year ago, was located in China’s western Xinjiang province, the same region where the Chinese government is accused of detaining over 1 million Muslim ethnic minorities in so-called re-education detention camps where they are reportedly taught to be more culturally Chinese

According to ESPN, the NBA ran into a “myriad” of problems by opening the camp in Xinjiang, which is described as “a police state.” 

Sources said that American coaches were regularly harassed and surveilled in Xinjiang, with one coach being detained by authorities three times without just cause. Sources also said that some American employees were not able to obtain housing because of their status as foreigners. 

Mark Tatum, NBA’s deputy commissioner who oversees the league’s international operations, told ESPN that the NBA is “reevaluating" and "considering other opportunities" for the academy program. However, Tatum declined to say whether human rights abuses had been committed in the academies. 

"We were somewhat humbled," Tatum said of the academy project 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."

Tatum detailed that the league sought the opinions of experts as well as Yao when it came to the development of the academy program and said that NBA China’s board of directors was briefed on the placement of the academies, including the one in Xinjiang. 

According to the report, it didn’t take long after the academies opened before multiple coaches complained to NBA executive Greg Stolt and other league officials about the abuse and lack of education. 

Tatum admitted that the NBA received "a handful" of complaints about the mistreatment of players. He said the NBA informed local authorities and assured that the NBA has “zero tolerance" for such behavior. 

Tatum alleges that officials in the NBA’s headquarters in New York were not informed of the complaints at the time. 

Three sources told ESPN that coaches in the academies asked NBA China officials for guidance on how to handle the physical abuse they saw. Allegedly, the coaches were instructed to file reports to the NBA office in Shanghai. One coach said that he didn’t see any more instances of abuse after filing a report, but others said the abuse did not stop. 

"We weren't responsible for the local coaches, we didn't have the authority," Tatum said. "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."

Most of the former employees spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were asked by NBA officials not to speak with ESPN.

The ESPN report comes as the NBA has faced criticism in recent months over its lucrative relationship with China, which is regularly criticized by international human rights experts for engaging in egregious human rights abuses against religious minority communities and pro-democracy activists. 

Republican Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, who introduced a bill last week to punish multinational companies that rely on the slave labor of Uighur Muslims in China, criticized the NBA for blocking the phrase "Free Hong Kong" from being printed on custom apparel purchased through its online store. The phrase Free Hong Kong signals support for the pro-democracy protesters in the semi-autonomous region that China seeks to take control over. 

“Rather than let fans order #FreeHongKong jerseys @nba kills custom gear altogether,” Hawley tweeted. “Now about the slave labor that helps make all those @nba @nike product lines. …” 

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, criticized Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban over the NBA’s banning of “Free Hong Kong” on custom jerseys. 

“Can you condemn the CCP’s concentration camps w/ 1 million Uyghurs?” Cruz asked in a tweet. “Can you say ANYTHING other than ‘Chairman Mao is beautiful & wise’?”

Last October, Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey tweeted in support of the pro-democracy protestors, which led the Chinese government to suspend NBA broadcasts on state television. The move cost the NBA millions of dollars in revenue. 

Prominent voices within the NBA pushed back against Morey’s comments, with star player Lebron James claiming Morey "wasn't educated.”

Last month, Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., voiced concerns about the NBA’s business interests in China in a letter sent to Commissioner Adam Silver.  

“Your league’s business interests are closely intertwined with Communist China’s estimated $4 billion NBA market,” she wrote. “While the NBA has worked hard to raise awareness of social issues at home, there is concern that the league has turned a blind eye to human rights abuses committed abroad — even bowing down to pressure last year.”

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