The N.B.A. has been accused of helping run basketball academies in China where children were regularly abused by coaches and staff members at government-run facilities, according to a scathing ESPN report on Wednesday that put the league’s relationship with the authoritarian country once again in a harsh spotlight.
The report, published one day before the N.B.A. resumes a season delayed by the coronavirus pandemic, cited several league staffers who spoke on condition of anonymity. The staff members, according to ESPN, said that Chinese coaches physically struck players and that athletes were housed in poor conditions and deprived of schooling that was promised when the academies began their relationship with the N.B.A.
One former coach described watching a Chinese coach throw a ball into a player’s face and then “kick him in the gut.”
The N.B.A. had three academies in China, including one in the Xinjiang region, in the far northwest of the country, where the government has been accused of perpetrating human rights abuses against the Uighurs, a largely Muslim minority.
“The allegations in the ESPN article are disturbing,” Mark Tatum, the N.B.A.’s deputy commissioner, said in a phone interview with The New York Times. “We ended our involvement with the basketball academy in Xinjiang in June of 2019 and we have been re-evaluating the N.B.A. Academy program in China.”
The N.B.A.’s presence in Xinjiang had already caught the attention of lawmakers in Washington. At the end of June, Senator Marsha Blackburn, Republican of Tennessee, wrote a letter to Commissioner Adam Silver, asking what steps the league was taking to end its involvement with the camp because of the widespread abuses. Tatum responded with a letter on the league’s behalf on July 21 to say that the N.B.A. “had no involvement with the Xinjiang basketball academy for more than a year.” The N.B.A.’s response appeared to be its first public acknowledgment of the academy’s closure.
The Chinese government did not immediately respond after the ESPN report appeared early on Thursday morning Beijing time.
A former American coach told ESPN that at the Xinjiang camp, rooms meant for two people were sometimes used to house eight to 10 athletes each. The other two academies are in the Zhejiang and Shandong provinces, both in eastern China. They were also supposed to provide education to the students, but at least one American coach quit, according to ESPN, because of the lack of schooling provided.
According to the NBA Academy website, the players in these academies range from 14 to 18 years old. Tatum told ESPN that officials in the N.B.A.’s New York office, including Commissioner Adam Silver, were not aware of broad mistreatment of players.
In Xinjiang, the N.B.A. “didn’t have the authority or the ability to take direct action against any of these local coaches,” Tatum said.
The three government-operated camps in China were already operating before the N.B.A. partnered with them to great fanfare in 2016. They were meant to help develop young Chinese players for professional basketball, in hopes of grooming the next Yao Ming, the former Houston Rockets star who became China’s most celebrated basketball celebrity. To find the next Yao, the N.B.A. was to bring elite coaching to the camp. (ESPN, a league broadcast partner, owns a stake in N.B.A. China, the entity that oversees the league’s operations in the country.)
“Nothing is more important than to grow the game of basketball here in China,” Silver said at the time. “We’re thankful for the terrific reception we’ve had in China. It’s very important that we give back as well. One of our means of giving back is to help develop elite players here.”
Nowhere has that growth been more apparent than in China, where the N.B.A. has more fans than it does in the United States. But the N.B.A. and the Chinese government have been on the outs since the fall, when a social media post by Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets, appeared to support pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong — just as the N.B.A. was going to play preseason games in China.
The Chinese government was furious, setting off an unusual dispute that intertwined professional sports, international politics and business. According to Silver, the Chinese government wanted Morey fired, a request the league denied, and N.B.A. games were taken off the air on China Central Television, the state-run television network. Silver has said that the N.B.A. will likely lose hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue as a result of the rift.
Silver has maintained an interest in repairing relations with China.
“We’ve continued a dialogue with the Chinese, with our business partners there. In certain cases, with certain government officials,” Silver said recently in an interview with Time magazine. “And you know, we’re just going to keep at it. We’ve had a long history in China. And certainly this is a bump in the road in our relations.”
Chris Buckley contributed reporting.