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.
One requested and received a transfer after watching Chinese coaches strike teenage players, three sources told ESPN. Another American coach left before the end of his contract because he found the lack of education in the academies unconscionable: "I couldn't continue to show up every day, looking at these kids and knowing they would end up being taxi drivers," he said.
Not long after the academies opened, multiple coaches complained about the physical abuse and lack of schooling to Greg Stolt, the league's vice president for international operations for NBA China, and to other league officials in China, the sources said. It was unclear whether the information was passed on to NBA officials in New York, they said. The NBA declined to make Stolt available for comment.
Two of the former NBA employees separately told ESPN that coaches at the academies regularly speculated about whether Silver had been informed about the problems. "I said, 'If [Silver] shows up, we're all fired immediately,'" one of the coaches said.
Tatum said the NBA received "a handful" of complaints that Chinese coaches had mistreated young players and immediately informed local authorities that the league had "zero tolerance" for behavior that was "antithetical to our values." Tatum said the incidents were not reported at the time to league officials in New York, including himself or Silver.
"I will tell you that the health and wellness of academy athletes and everyone who participates in our program is of the utmost priority," Tatum said.
Tatum identified four separate incidents, though he said only one was formally reported in writing by an NBA employee. On three of the occasions, the coaches reported witnessing or hearing about physical abuse. The fourth incident involved a player who suffered from heat exhaustion.
"We did everything that we could, given the limited oversight we had," Tatum said.
Three sources who worked for the NBA in China told ESPN the physical abuse by Chinese coaches was much more prevalent than the incidents Tatum identified.
The NBA brought in elite coaches and athletic trainers with experience in the G League and Division I basketball to work at the academies. One former coach described watching a Chinese coach fire a ball into a young player's face at point-blank 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 coach said. "We're part of that. The NBA is part of that."
It is common for Chinese coaches to discipline players physically, according to several people with experience in player development in China. "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," said 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. "The older generation still sees it as an integral part of training."
In 2012, the NBA hired Bruce Palmer to work as technical director at a private basketball school in Dongguan in southern China, a program that predated the academies. The school has a sponsorship agreement that pays the NBA nearly $200,000 a year and allows the school to bill itself as an "NBA Training Center."
Palmer spent five years in Dongguan and said he repeatedly warned Chinese coaches not to hit, kick or throw balls at children. After one incident, he said he told a coach: "You can't do that to your kid, this is an NBA training center. If you really feel like hitting a 14-year-old boy, and you think it's going to help him or make you feel better, take him off campus, but not here, because the NBA does not allow this."
Palmer said the school's headmaster told him that hitting kids has "been proven to be effective as a teaching tool."
The issue was so prevalent in the NBA academies that coaches repeatedly asked NBA China officials, including Stolt, for direction on how to handle what they saw as physical abuse, according to three sources. The coaches were told to file written reports to the NBA office in Shanghai. One coach said he encountered no more issues after filing a report, but the others said the abuse continued.
"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."
WITH A POPULATION four times the size of the U.S., China is an exploding market for the NBA. The league's soaring revenues were propelled in part by the success of former Rockets center 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.
The league's news release announcing the academies said, "The initiative will employ a holistic, 360-degree approach to player development with focuses on education, leadership, character development and life skills."
The NBA employees who spoke with ESPN said many of the league's problems stemmed from the decision to embed the academies in government-run sports facilities. The facilities gave the NBA access to existing infrastructure and elite players, Tatum said. But the arrangement put NBA activities under the direction of Chinese officials who selected the players and helped define the training.
"We were basically working for the Chinese government," one former coach said.
After his work in the NBA-sponsored facility in Dongguan, the league hired Palmer to evaluate the academies. He concluded the program was "fundamentally flawed." Palmer said it not only put NBA employees under Chinese authority but also prevented the league from working with China's most elite players.
In hindsight, Tatum said, the NBA might have been "a little bit naive" to believe the structure gave the league sufficient oversight.
In Xinjiang, players lived in cramped dormitories; the rooms were meant for two people, but a former coach said bunk beds were used to put as many as eight to 10 athletes in a room. Players trained two or three times a day and had few extracurricular activities. NBA coaches and officials became concerned that although education had been announced as a pillar of the academy program, the sports bureaus did not provide formal schooling. When the players -- some as young as 13 -- weren't training, eating or sleeping, they were often left unsupervised.
One coach said league officials who visited China seemed to be caught off-guard when they learned that players in the NBA academies did not attend school.
The NBA was able to work out an arrangement by which players at the academy in Zhejiang would be educated at a local international school. But similar efforts in Xinjiang and Shandong were unsuccessful.
Tatum said Chinese officials told the NBA that players at the academies would take classes six days a week in subjects such as English, math and sports psychology. He said when NBA employees later raised questions about whether the kids were in school, the Chinese officials reassured them they were.
But two former league employees said they complained directly to Stolt, who's based in Shanghai, that the players under their supervision were not in school.
Within the past month, as the NBA 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."
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.