An investigation conducted by ESPN found that employees of the NBA complained over humans rights violations inside a Chinese youth-development program.
ESPN reported that three American coaches told league officials that their Chinese counterparts were "physically abusing young players and failing to provide schooling" even though commissioner Adam Silver stated that education would be foundational to the program.
One of the most serious complaints came from the academy in Xinjiang, where the area has devolved into a police state where Uighur Muslims are being held in camps enclosed with barbed wire. A video surfaced earlier this month that showed what appeared to be Uighur prisoners in Xinjiang with blindfolds over their eyes and their heads shaved. The ambassador to the UK dismissed the video as inaccurate.
ESPN's investigation also found that "American coaches were frequently harassed and surveilled in Xinjiang," and that "one American coach was detained three times without cause; he and others were unable to obtain housing because of their status as foreigners."
NBA's deputy commissioner and chief operating officer Mark Tatum stated that the league is taking inventory of everything that has gone on and is looking into other options for the academy program. He admitted that the Xinjiang academy has closed down but would not confirm if the closing was motivated by humans rights violations.
"We were somewhat humbled," Tatum said. "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."
The overseas program was initially launched in 2016 in an effort to fill the demand in what ESPN characterized as a "basketball-obsessed" market that has made the NBA in China a $5 billion enterprise.
Though the NBA had advised none of the former employees of the camp to speak to ESPN about what went on in the Chinese academies, many of them spoke under the condition of anonymity, fearing that their future employment opportunities would be put in jeopardy if they spoke out publicly.
A public relations official for the NBA even wrote in an email to one former coach, asking them not to "mention that you have been advised by the NBA not to respond."
Tatum had reported that the NBA received a number of complaints about the Chinese coaches and how they had deliberately mistreated players. He informed the authorities that the NBA had no tolerance for behavior that went against their values, according to ESPN.
"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.
He added that "we did everything that we could, given the limited oversight we had."
The prevalence of abuse was much more common that Tatum made it out to be, according to three sources who worked for the NBA in China. One former coach described watching a Chinese coach throw a ball point-blank into a player's face before kicking him in the midsection.
"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 added. "We're part of that. The NBA is part of that."
Jinming Zheng, an assistant professor of sports management at Northumbria University in England, insisted that corporal punishment was still seen as a productive way to motivate and train young people. He continued by saying that older generations in China see physical punishment as part of the training process.
Tatum said that "we weren't responsible for the local coaches, we didn't have the authority," adding that "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."