Are kids physically abused at China's NBA youth training camps? Ex-league staffer likens it to 'WWII Germany'

The NBA faced a lot of problems for 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, says report


                            Are kids physically abused at China's NBA youth training camps? Ex-league staffer likens it to 'WWII Germany'
(Getty Images)

The NBA is in the middle of a new controversy for its ties to China. An investigative report by ESPN has found that the league had set up training camps in China, including one in a Chinese state that operates concentration camps, where allegedly children had to regularly endure physical abuse at the hands of officials. The program was launched in 2016, as a part of the NBA's strategy to develop local players in a basketball-obsessed market that has made NBA China a $5 billion enterprise, according to the report.

The report says American coaches at three NBA training academies in China had informed league officials that their Chinese partners were physically abusing young players and failed to provide proper education to them. The report adds that commissioner Adam Silver had said that education would be the main focus of the program, but multiple sources with direct knowledge of the complaints have claimed otherwise. The ESPN investigation was a follow up of the tweet by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey in October. The story states that the tweet was in support of pro-democracy protesters that led the Chinese government to pull the NBA from state television, costing the league hundreds of millions of dollars.

The NBA faced a lot of problems for 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, according to the report. The investigation further claims, American coaches were frequently harassed and surveilled in Xinjiang, according to sources. One American coach was even detained thrice without cause; and he and others even had difficulty in finding accommodation due to their foreigner status.

The report also says a former league employee even compared the atmosphere when he worked in Xinjiang to “World War II Germany”. And another said it was “a sweat camp for athletes”. A former coach said that he had witnessed a Chinese coach fire a ball into a young player's face at point-blank range and then “kick him in the gut”. He added, “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. We're part of that. The NBA is part of that.”

The story quotes Jinming Zheng, an assistant professor of sports management at Northumbria University in England, who grew up in mainland China and has written extensively about the Chinese sports system. Zheng agrees that Chinese coaches do indulge in physical means to “discipline” players. He says, “For most of the older generation, even my grandparents, they take corporal punishment for granted and even see it as an expression of love and care, but I know it might be criticized by people living outside of China.”

The report also quotes Nury Turkel, a Uighur American activist, who has been heavily involved in lobbying the US government on Uighur rights. Turkel said he believed the league had been indirectly legitimizing “crimes against humanity.”

In an interview with ESPN about its findings, NBA deputy commissioner and chief operating officer Mark Tatum, who oversees international operations, is quoted as saying "reevaluating" and "considering other opportunities" for the academy program which operates out of sports facilities run by the Chinese government. According to ESPN, last week, the league, for the first time, admitted that it had closed the Xinjiang academy, but when Tatum was prodded on whether human rights were a factor about the academy project in China, he is quoted as saying, "We were somewhat humbled." "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." However, this claim was disputed by a coach who said, “They were still trying to get people to go out there.” And it didn’t end because Tatum had apparently said, “We’re gonna end this”.

The controversy continues to echo even when play resumes this week after a hiatus due to the pandemic. The report states that China Central TV recently said it still won't air NBA games, and US lawmakers have raised questions about the league's business ties to China. Right after this report, some followers had strong reactions to the issue on Twitter. A user said, “NBA loves to preach about ‘social justice’ & racial politics but sees no problem with running camps in a region where minorities are persecuted, tortured & put in concentration camps. Cowardice + hypocrisy = NBA.” Another criticized, “NBA's hypocritical social justice warriors have nothing to say on China's systemic oppression.” A user questioned, “How is #BoycottNBA not trending? Any company that has such ties to China and refuses to condemn the genocide of Uighur Muslims is evil.”

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