Congress, NBA Remain at Odds Over China Dealings

In a letter obtained by Sports Illustrated, two U.S. senators report that an NBA executive may have fabricated the timeline of its dealings with a youth basketball academy in Xinjiang.
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Communication exchanges between the NBA and Congress over the association’s relationship with the Chinese are growing more tense.

In the most recent correspondence, two U.S. senators purport that the NBA deceived Congressional members about its involvement in a youth basketball academy based in a controversial region of China. Sens. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) are “deeply concerned” about reports of abuse at the league’s youth-development program in Xinjiang and suggests that an NBA executive fabricated the timeline of its dealings with the academy, according to a two-page letter that lawmakers sent Thursday to commissioner Adam Silver. Sports Illustrated obtained a copy of the letter.

The root of the latest correspondence is the timing in which the NBA ended its relationship with the Xinjiang academy and how the association responded to the abuse unfolding within the facility. An ESPN story published July 29 revealed mistreatment of young players by Chinese coaches, including physical abuse and corporal punishment, and the story also exposed NBA executives as having misled Blackburn over the timing of its termination of its relationship with the academy.

In a July 21 letter to Blackburn and first reported by SI, NBA Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum wrote that the NBA had ended its relationship with the Xinjiang basketball academy more than a year ago. However, ESPN and the New York Times have both reported that the NBA’s Xinjiang academy was operational as recently as last summer. The ESPN story, citing anonymous sources, characterized the league’s original statement to Blackburn as “completely inaccurate.”

“Therefore, it is our understanding that the NBA has not been forthcoming with members of the Senate,” Blackburn and Rubio’s letter says. “If true, this is unacceptable.”

In the letter, the senators are requesting documentation from the NBA of its termination with the academy, asking the league to identify a specific date. They are also demanding Silver answer five questions listed in the letter, giving the NBA an Aug. 26 deadline. The questions pertain to the NBA’s handling of the Xinjiang academy situation.

“We remain deeply troubled by the league’s degree of engagement with the Chinese Communist government,” the letter says. “As an American organization who claims to hold integrity and respect as part of its core values, we urge the NBA to take a stand against the horrific abuses by the Chinese Government and Communist Party.”

The latest letter is the third such between Blackburn and NBA leaders. She sent an original email to Silver on June 30 regarding the league’s association with China. Tatum replied three weeks later in a terse response that Blackburn described as lacking “the appropriate concern and responsibility that should accompany congressional correspondence.” This time, Rubio joined in the exchange.

The NBA’s training center and the league’s close ties to China have sparked outrage among Congressional members. The Communist regime has abused human rights, squashed pro-democracy protests and hidden details on the coronavirus outbreak, Blackburn noted in her original letter to Silver. On July 10, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Missouri) sent a letter of his own to the NBA, his focus more on China’s exploits in Hong Kong.

Blackburn’s target is the league’s former training center. In fall of 2016, the NBA opened one of three Chinese academies in Xinjiang housing about 250 teenagers. Within the Xinjiang region, Chinese authorities are holding roughly a million Muslims in what reports have described as concentration camps, the most impacted of which are a Turkic-speaking minority known as Uighurs. Last year, a member of the United Nations human rights panel condemned Beijing for turning the region into a “no rights zone.”

The ESPN story in July indicated that coaches filed reports documenting abuse to the NBA office in Shanghai, but the abuse continued in many cases. “History will not judge kindly those who remained silent or were complicit in the Chinese Communist Party’s human rights abuses,” Blackburn and Rubio write in the latest letter to Silver.