The NBA’s close relationship with China has, once again, become a problem. As Reuters reports, a US congressional commission has called for NBA players to end endorsements with Chinese sportswear brands that are believed to be complicit in the forced labor camps in the region of Xinjiang.
“We believe that commercial relationships with companies that source cotton in Xinjiang create reputational risks for NBA players and the NBA itself,” the chairs of the bipartisan congressional-executive commission wrote in a letter to the National Basketball Player’s Association. “The NBA and NBA players should not even implicitly be endorsing such horrific human rights abuses.”
The US government had previously determined that China was committing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang, barring cotton imports from the region. Since 2018, China is widely believed to have forced minority Muslims to engage in forced labor and “re-education camps,” which, for lack of a better term, are basically concentration camps.
The strongly-worded letter also mentioned that China’s leading sportswear brands Anta, Li-Ning, and Peak had publically embraced Xinjiang cotton, leading the US government to believe that the brands are complicit in the use of forced labor.
China has always played a large role for the NBA outside the US, being one of the largest markets for, well, anything. Players such as LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, and Michael Jordan reserve nearly god-tier standing among Chinese basketball fans. Players such as Yao Ming and, more recently, Jeremy Lin (although he is American-born), have ensured that the NBA enjoyed great growth in China over the last few decades.
That relationship was strained in late 2019 when then-Houston Rockets GM Darryl Morey offered comments in support of democracy in Hong Kong, during a time when there were riots and protests against Chinese control and overreach into the politics in Hong Kong. China pulled NBA games off of its state television in response.
Many felt that the NBA’s lackluster response in defense of Morey was due to the fact that the league and its players did not want to strain the China relationship further, putting money ahead of social issues. That stands in stark contrast to the strong BLM stance the league has taken since the George Floyd shooting.
Last July, reports emerged that the NBA’s youth academies in China were subject to allegations of abuse of young players by local staff and harassment of foreign staffers in Xinjiang.
The congressional letter, the latest chapter in the tumultuous relationship, is perhaps the most damning, as it’s the first time the US government has felt the need to intervene and take an official position on the topic.
NBA players and the league itself make a lot of money thanks to the popularity of the sport in China and, while the government is not accusing any players of being aware of or complicit in the forced labor camps, it will be interesting to see how this shakes out. Especially because the NBA has earned a reputation for being one of the more political major sports leagues in the US, with players leading the charge on many social issues that are at the forefront of US politics.