• Wednesday, August 12, 2020

ESPN investigation coaches at NBA China academies complained of player abuse, lack of schooling

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  1. DavidsSling

    DavidsSling FULL MEMBER

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    The NBA's $5 billion operation in China has included not only merchandise sales but also efforts to develop young Chinese players. An ESPN investigation found that NBA employees complained about human rights concerns inside the training program. GREG BAKER/AFP/Getty Images
    30 Jul, 2020
    • Steve Fainaru
    • Mark Fainaru-Wada
    LONG BEFORE AN October tweet in support of Hong Kong protesters spotlighted the NBA's complicated relationship with China, the league faced complaints from its own employees over human rights concerns inside an NBA youth-development program in that country, an ESPN investigation has found.

    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."

    In an interview with ESPN about its findings, NBA deputy commissioner and chief operating officer Mark Tatum, who oversees international operations, said the NBA is "reevaluating" and "considering other opportunities" for the academy program, which operates out of sports facilities run by the Chinese government. Last week, the league acknowledged for the first time it had closed the Xinjiang academy, but, when pressed, Tatum declined to say whether human rights were a factor.

    "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."

    In October, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey's tweet in support of pro-democracy protesters led the Chinese government to pull the NBA from state television, costing the league hundreds of millions of dollars. The controversy continues to reverberate, as the NBA prepares to resume play this week after a 4 1/2-month hiatus because of the coronavirus pandemic. China Central TV recently said it still won't air NBA games, and U.S. lawmakers have raised questions about the league's business ties to China.

    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.

    The program, launched in 2016, is part of the NBA's strategy to develop local players in a basketball-obsessed market that has made NBA China a $5 billion enterprise. Most of the former employees spoke on the condition of anonymity because they feared damaging their chances for future employment. 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."

    At least two coaches left their positions in response to what they believed was mistreatment of young players.

    Yao Ming, who retired in 2011.

    Tatum said the league sought advice from Yao and other experts in China on the development of its academy program. He also said NBA China's board of directors was briefed on the planning and placement of the three academies, including Xinjiang, adding that ESPN holds a seat on the board. An ESPN spokesperson said the network "is a non-voting board observer and owns a small stake" in NBA China, declining any further comment. (Games are streamed in China by internet giant Tencent, which also has a partnership with ESPN.)

    Launching the academies had a primary goal for NBA bosses: "Find another Yao," according to two of the former employees who spoke with ESPN.

    When Silver announced the plan to open three league-run academies in China in 2016, he said the goal was to train elite athletes "holistically."

    "Top international prospects will benefit from a complete approach to player development that combines NBA-quality coaching, training and competition with academics and personal development," Silver said.

    prepared to resume play in Florida, it began to face new questions about its relationship with China. Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., and Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., sent separate letters to Silver questioning why the NBA is promoting social justice at home while ignoring China's abuses. The letters came shortly after China announced a new national security law in Hong Kong that gives authorities sweeping powers to crack down on pro-Democracy protesters. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, also recently sparred on Twitter with Mavericks owner Mark Cuban over China.

    Hawley's letter challenged the NBA for excluding messages supporting human rights in China among statements that players can wear on their jerseys. The approved messages are limited to social justice and the Black Lives Matter movement.

    "Given the NBA's troubled history of excusing and apologizing for the brutal repression of the Chinese Communist regime, these omissions are striking," Hawley wrote in the letter, which was sent to media members.

    One recipient, ESPN reporter Adrian Wojnarowski, replied with a profanity, which Hawley then tweeted out to his 235,000 followers. ESPN and Wojnarowski issued separate apologies, and the reporter was suspended for two weeks without pay.

    IN XINJIANG, THE NBA opened an academy in a region notorious for human rights abuses.

    In recent years, the Chinese government has escalated its use of high-tech surveillance, restricted freedom of movement and erected mass internment facilities, which the government describes as vocational training centers and critics describe as concentration camps holding ethnic minorities, particularly Uighur Muslims. The government says the policy is necessary to combat terrorism. In September, the United States joined more than 30 countries in condemning "China's horrific campaign of repression" against the Uighurs. Reports of separatist violence and Chinese government repression in Xinjiang go back decades.

    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.

    In the spring of 2018, the U.S. began considering sanctions against China over human rights concerns there, and the issue became the subject of increasing media coverage within the United States. In August 2018, Slate published an article under the headline: "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."

    Later, the NBA would receive criticism from congressional leaders, but it never addressed the concerns or said anything about the status of the facility until last week.

    Sometime shortly after Morey's October tweet, the academy webpage was taken down.

    Pressed by ESPN, Tatum repeatedly avoided questions on whether the widespread human rights abuses in Xinjiang played a role in closing the academy, instead citing "many factors."

    "My job, our job is not to take a position on every single human rights violation, and I'm not an expert in every human rights situation or violation," Tatum said. "I'll tell you what the NBA stands for: The values of the NBA are about respect, are about inclusion, are about diversity. That is what we stand for."

    Nury Turkel, a Uighur American activist who has been heavily involved in lobbying the U.S. government on Uighur rights, told ESPN before the NBA said it had left Xinjiang that he believed the league had been indirectly legitimizing "crimes against humanity."

    One former league employee who worked in China wondered how the NBA, which has been so progressive on issues around Black Lives Matter and moved the 2017 All-Star Game out of Charlotte, North Carolina, over a law requiring transgender people to use bathrooms corresponding to the sex listed on their birth certificates, could operate a training camp amid a Chinese government crackdown that also targeted NBA employees.

    "You can't have it both ways," the former employee said. "... You can't be over here in February promoting Black History Month and be over in China, where they're in reeducation camps and all the people that you're partnering with are hitting kids."

    Tatum said the NBA "has a long history and our values are about inclusion and respect and bridging cultural divides. That is what we stand for and that is who we are as an organization. We do think that engagement is the best way to bridge cultural divides, the best way to grow the game across borders."

    China's soaring market for the NBA was propelled by the success of retired NBA star Yao Ming, seen in a 2012 photo with then-commissioner David Stern, left. Randy Belice/NBAE/Getty Images
    The repression in Xinjiang is aimed primarily at Uighurs, but foreigners also have been harassed. One American coach said he was stopped by police three times in 10 months. Once, he was taken to a station and held for more than two hours because he didn't have his passport at the time. Because of the security restrictions, foreigners were told they were not allowed to rent housing in Xinjiang; most lived at local hotels.

    Tatum said the league wasn't aware any of its employees had been detained or harassed in Xinjiang.

    Most of the players who trained at the NBA's Xinjiang academy were Uighurs, but it was unclear to league employees who spoke with ESPN if any were impacted by the government crackdown.

    After returning from Xinjiang last fall, Corbin Loubert, a strength coach who joined the NBA after stints at the IMG Academy in Florida and The Citadel, posted a CNN story on Twitter describing how the network's reporters faced surveillance and intimidation in Xinjiang.

    "I spent the past year living in Xinjiang, and can confirm every word of this piece is true," Loubert tweeted. "One of the biggest challenges was not only the discrimination and harassment I faced," he added, "but turning a blind eye to the discrimination and harassment that the Uyghur people around me faced."

    Loubert declined several interview requests from ESPN.

    In a bipartisan letter to Silver last October after Morey's tweet, eight U.S. legislators -- including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Cruz -- called for the NBA to "reevaluate" the Xinjiang academy in response to "a massive, government-run campaign of ethno-religious repression."

    Even though the NBA now says it had left Xinjiang in the spring of 2019, the league did not respond to the letter. The Xinjiang academy webpage disappeared soon after.

    Last week, in response to Sen. Blackburn of Tennessee, the league wrote, "The NBA has had no involvement with the Xinjiang basketball academy for more than a year, and the relationship has been terminated."

    John Pomfret, whose 2016 book, "The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom" covers the history of the U.S.-China relationship, called the decision to put an academy in Xinjiang "a huge mistake" that made the NBA "party to a massive human rights violation."

    "Shutting it down was probably the smartest thing to do," he said. "But you can clearly understand from the NBA's point of view why they wouldn't want to make an announcement: Then you're just rubbing China's nose in it. What would you say, 'We're leaving because of human rights concerns?' That's worse than Morey's tweet."

    Tatum said the league decided to end its involvement with the Xinjiang facility because it "didn't have the authority, or the ability to take direct action against any of these local coaches, and we ultimately concluded that the program there was unsalvageable."

    Tatum said the NBA informed its coaches in Xinjiang that the league planned to cease operations, and coaches were then "moved out." But when Tatum was told that multiple sources had told ESPN that the NBA never informed the coaches of its plans to close Xinjiang, Tatum said he wasn't actually sure what conversations had taken place.

    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.'"

    "They probably finally said, 'Why are we doing this?'" he continued. "Like we told them from the start, 'Why do we need to be here? We're the NBA, there's no reasons for us to be here."

    ESPN researcher John Mastroberardino contributed to this report.

    https://www.espn.com.au/nba/story/_...demies-complained-player-abuse-lack-schooling
     
  2. DavidsSling

    DavidsSling FULL MEMBER

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    NBA Academies in China EXPOSED for human rights violations! | Cancel the NBA

     
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