Senator Hawley Criticizes NBA for Failing to Take a Stance on China

By Frank Fang
Frank Fang
Frank Fang
Frank Fang is a Taiwan-based journalist. He covers U.S., China, and Taiwan news. He holds a master's degree in materials science from Tsinghua University in Taiwan.
July 30, 2020Updated: July 30, 2020

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) is calling on NBA commissioner Adam Silver to testify before Congress, after the basketball league stayed silent on a question from the senator regarding its stance on whether NBA players and employees can freely speak out against communist China.

In a letter Hawley sent to Silver on July 10, he questioned why the NBA’s list of approved political messages that players could wear on their jerseys included social justice slogans, but phrases supporting victims of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) were “conspicuously missing.”

Hawley highlighted that when Houston Rockets General Manager Dary Morey voiced support for Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters in a Twitter post in 2019, the NBA “chose to apologize to the CCP” instead of allowing him to express his opinion.

China is the NBA’s biggest market outside of the United States. NBA China, a separate business arm of the NBA, was valued at at over $4 billion, according to Forbes.

“How does the NBA plan to defend NBA players and employees against retaliation by the Chinese Communist Party if they choose to speak out against the Party’s actions in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, or elsewhere?” Hawley asked, in one of five questions he wanted Silver to answer in his letter.

On July 29, Hawley published the NBA’s response to his letter, which was written by the league’s deputy commissioner Mark Tatum.

Tatum said that the senator’s question was a “hypothetical” one and thus he couldn’t answer it. He added that “values of equality, respect, and freedom of expression have long defined the NBA.”

In response, Hawley said in a statement that “Mark Tatum would not commit to protecting employees or players who publicly criticize the Chinese Communist Party,”

“The whole letter [by Tatum] is a joke. Reads like lawyers in Beijing drafted it. Maybe it’s time to hear directly from Adam Silver. On Capitol Hill. Under oath,” Hawley wrote on his Twitter account.

In another tweet, Hawley suggested that he and the NBA could discuss the league’s training academies, a youth-development program, in China, after cable sports channel ESPN published an investigative report alleging that the NBA’s Chinese coaches “were physically abusing young players and failing to provide schooling.”

The ESPN article, based on interviews with several unnamed former NBA employees, also found that American coaches at an NBA academy in Xinjiang were “frequently harassed and surveilled.”

More than a million ethnic Muslim minorities, including Uyghurs, Kazakh, and Kyrgyz people, are being detained in roughly 1,200 internment camps in China’s farwestern region of Xinjiang, according to the 2019 Trafficking In Persons report by the U.S. State Department. Beijing claims these camps are “vocational training centers.” Survivors recounted that they underwent political indoctrination and torture.

One American coach was reportedly detained three times without cause in Xinjiang, according to ESPN. A former NBA employee compared the atmosphere in Xinjiang to “World War II Germany.”

Tatum, who oversees the NBA’s international operations, told ESPN that the league was “reevaluating” and “considering other opportunities” for its Chinese academy program.

On July 21, Tatum, in a letter responding to Sen. Marsha Blackburn’s (R-Tenn.) questions, said the NBA “has had no involvement with the Xinjiang basketball academy for more than a year, and the relationship has been terminated.”

ESPN reported that Tatum refused to say if the Xinjiang academy’s closure was connected to human rights abuses.

On the NBA Academy website, it currently lists two academies in China, one in Shandong Province and the other in Zhejiang Province.

Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) applauded ESPN for its investigation in a Twitter post.

“The link between the NBA’s operations in China and the human rights abuses of the CCP are even stronger than we previously knew,” Scott wrote.

He added: “The @NBA kowtows to Communist China because they put profits over human rights.”