Sports

The NBA Prostitutes Itself for the Politburo

Security personnel at the venue that was scheduled to hold fan events ahead of an NBA China game between Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Lakers, at the Oriental Sports Center in Shanghai, China, October 9, 2019. (Aly Song/Reuters)
The league’s complicity in the Chinese Communist Party’s atrocities is a national scandal.

Uighurs in concentration camps don’t buy sneakers, but the Communists who put them there do. When push comes to shove, that’s all that really matters to the National Basketball Association, an organization led exclusively, it seems, by protoplasmic, invertebrate robber-barons who put in their work days sucking greedily on the teat of the Chinese Communist Party. There’s simply no other conclusion to be reached after reading yesterday’s excellent ESPN investigation into the NBA’s activities in the Middle Kingdom.

The red flags signaling the league’s craven propensity for self-abasement were first flown at full-mast last October, when Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted his support for pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, touching off a firestorm. Morey was forced to apologize, and a slew of basketball stars across the country rushed to profess their epistemic shortcomings with regard to Chinese history when pressed, as if a nuanced understanding of how the tributary system worked during the Qing dynasty was a necessary prerequisite for determining whether or not democracy is a good idea. I’m sure that before Joe Louis enlisted in the United States Army in 1942, he took care to educate himself about the Bismarckian unification of Germany, lest his moral evaluation of Hitler be impeded by a lack of informed historical empathy for the Nazis.

Moreygate alone sufficed to expose the NBA as an amoral money-grubbing cult. But if we needed more evidence, it has now been amply supplied by Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada in ESPN’s new report, which is based on interviews with former NBA employees involved in the league’s player-development programs in China. The market for the NBA in China is worth about $5 billion, and was built on the success of the now-retired Chinese player Yao Ming. According to two of the former NBA employees who spoke with ESPN, the league’s player-development academies in China had one salient mandate from the powers that be: “Find another Yao.” Sold to the world as an altruistic, bridge-building venture that offers a holistic education and opportunities for self-improvement to young Chinese men, the academies are in fact little more than human basketball farms designed to breed the next native cash cow for NBA executives.

One of these farms was in Xinjiang, the Western province of China where over a million Uighur Muslims are currently being detained in concentration camps. In many respects it was quite similar to all of the NBA’s other Chinese camps: Young boys were physically beaten by the native Chinese coaches, ten athletes were piled into dormitories made for two, the promised academic schooling never materialized, and so on and so forth. The crucial difference is that most of these boys were Uighurs. Corbin Loubert, an ex-NBA strength coach who worked for the league in Xinjiang for a year, tweeted last fall that “one of the biggest challenges” of working in the province “was not only the discrimination and harassment I faced, but turning a blind eye to the discrimination and harassment that the Uyghur people around me faced.” According to the report, another of the league’s ex-employees who worked there compared it to “World War II Germany.” The NBA acknowledged for the first time last week that its basketball camp in Xinjiang is now closed. The boys who attended it, and who were promised a brighter future by one of our nation’s most iconic companies, are now, in all likelihood, in a camp of an altogether different kind.

One person who seems positively nonplussed about this situation is the NBA’s deputy commissioner and COO, Mark Tatum, who comes across in the report as a desiccated ruin of a human being. This is not to say that the authors describe him as such; they merely relay his own words, which are more than enough to paint a picture of his character. “When pressed,” Fainaru and Fainaru-Wada write, “Tatum declined to say whether human rights were a factor” in the closure of the Xinjiang academy. And when he was willing to speak about what the league has done in China, he did so in disgustingly euphemistic terms. “We do need to have more direct oversight and the ability to make staffing changes when appropriate,” he said. That’s corporate-speak for “maybe we should try to hire some Chinese coaches who won’t beat the living daylights out of children, but we’ll have to see if the commies allow us to.” Elsewhere in the story, one of the NBA’s ex-coaches said it better: “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. We’re part of that. The NBA is part of that.” But when the reporters presented Tatum with this information, he pleaded the same lack of expertise in matters of elementary morality that NBA players did last year when confronted with similar inconvenient truths:

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. 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.

The book of Ecclesiastes tells us that “there is a time for every purpose under heaven.” I would submit that among these purposes is that of the American people, rising together as one nation to cry out in patriotic unison, “F*** you, Mark Tatum.” “Respect?” “Inclusion?” “Diversity?” These are the words that the NBA sanctimoniously hurled at conservative Americans when it moved the 2017 All-Star game out of North Carolina because of a law requiring transgender people to use the bathroom of their biological sex. Similar progressive chest-thumping was on display when the league announced that players will henceforth be allowed to wear messages of social justice on the back of their jerseys, so long as these messages have nothing to do with Hong Kong, Xinjiang Uighurs, or anything else that might annoy the Chinese politburo. The breathtaking double-standard, the sheer hypocrisy of taking a “moral stand” against gender-specific restrooms but not against cultural genocide reveals that there was never any moral stand to begin with; there was only economic calculation. If the former stand had the potential to actually hurt the NBA’s profit margins, it surely would not have been taken. We know this because the league has bent over backward to avoid speaking out about Communist atrocities in a transparent attempt to protect its bottom line. The only alternative explanation is that the powers that be at the NBA really do believe that gender-binary restrooms are more morally objectionable than calculated ethnocide, and not even they are that ethically illiterate. The truth, on the contrary, is that “the values of the NBA” are simply money, money, and more money.

All this is to say that the next time any representative of the league tries to lend his voice to the latest domestic social-justice crusade, Americans should politely tell him where to shove it. In the past, the activism of American athletes has actually cost them something — that, after all, is the only real proof we have that their convictions were real in the first place. Muhammad Ali’s objections to the war in Vietnam cost him not only his world heavyweight title but some of the peak physical years of his career. The activism of the NBA and of other latter-day sporting saints has cost nothing. Colin Kaepernick, for example, now has a multi-million endorsement deal with Nike, not for playing football but for making grotesque generalizations about police officers. Nice work if you can get it.

The social-justice kitsch of the American sports world is sanitized, focus-grouped, and fundamentally unthreatening to the actual perpetrators of historic injustice in the world. While multi-millionaire basketball players ponder which corporately approved virtue signal to plaster on the back of their jerseys, young men to whom this pathetic organization made promises are now wasting away in labor camps. During his famous “Evil Empire” speech, President Reagan quoted C. S. Lewis’s magisterial Screwtape Letters to warn against the temptation toward drawing a false moral equivalence between America and her enemies. Today, his words fit the NBA’s board of executives to a tee:

The greatest evil is not done now in those sordid “dens of crime” that Dickens loved to paint. It is not even done in concentration camps and labor camps. In those we see its final result, but it is conceived and ordered; moved, seconded, carried and minuted in clear, carpeted, warmed, and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice.

The conspiracy between NBA executives and the Chinese Communist Party against the soft-power projection of American values across the globe is a national scandal. There is always a temptation in the current media climate to fixate on the loudest and most conspicuous manifestations of evil. This is important, laudable even. But it often prevents us from asking the most important question to be asked of the powerful, which is not the question of what they shout at us, but of what they whisper to one another, and why.

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