In October last year, a tweet by an NBA team general manager in support of Hong Kong protestors triggered a backlash from the Chinese government. The NBA carefully maneuvered around the issue, essentially choosing not to anger Beijing so as to protect its business interests in China. Now, a recent report by ESPN reveals that athletes from the NBA’s academies in China have been suffering from abuse.
ESPN started its investigation after the twitter fiasco. The academies were established by the NBA in order to develop local talent that can eventually play a role in domestic basketball tournaments. An American coach who worked at one of these academies called them a “sweat camp for athletes.” Two coaches are known to have left their jobs after being distressed at the way young players were being treated. One coach requested a transfer after seeing a player being struck upon by local coaches. In one incident, a Chinese coach is said to have shot a basketball directly at a young player’s face and then kicked him in the gut.
“The allegations in the ESPN article are disturbing… We ended our involvement with the basketball academy in Xinjiang in June 2019 and have been re-evaluating the NBA Academy program in China… Our role was limited to providing three coaches at each academy, none of whom have been alleged to have engaged in any wrongdoing,” NBA Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum said to Reuters. He added that the academies were set up in 2016 to assist existing training centers.
Even before the academies were set up, Chinese coaches were known to be violent with the trainees at NBA training programs. Back in 2012, the organization tasked Bruce Palmer to oversee a private basketball school in southern China. The private school used to pay US$200,000 a year to the NBA and gained the right to label itself as an “NBA Training Center.” During his 5-year tenure at the school, Palmer had to repeatedly warn local coaches not to use physical assault like hitting, throwing balls, or kicking while training the kids. The school’s headmaster countered Palmer by arguing that hitting the children is proven to be “effective as a teaching tool.”
This raises the question of cultural differences between China and the U.S. In China, using physical means to discipline students is seen as normal. Jinming Zheng, an assistant professor of sports management at Northumbria University in England, notes that older generations of Chinese people take corporal punishment for granted. He points out that though outsiders might perceive this as violence, Chinese people usually see it as an expression of love and care. And since the older generation of Chinese coaches is still working in the industry, it is “normal” to see physical punishments being used on the players.
Speaking against the CCP
In July, Republican Senator Josh Hawley wrote a letter to NBA league commissioner Adam Silver, criticizing the organization’s decision to restrict the political messages that players can wear while on the court. The senator accused the NBA of implementing such a decision in order to silence the players’ voices against the CCP’s human rights violations in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.
On July 3, the NBA released a set of political messages that the players are allowed to depict on their jerseys. In total, 29 political messages were allowed, including “Black Lives Matter” and general values like “Equality,” “Peace,” and so on. Hawley mocked the NBA decision, saying that the restriction of political messages is akin to the censorship policies practiced by the Chinese communist regime.