The National Basketball Association and Nike (NKE) have been silent publicly since Boston Celtics center Enes Kanter called out China over human rights abuses.
Last week Kanter posted a series of videos on Twitter where he called Chinese President Xi Jinping a “brutal dictator,” and asked the Chinese government to free Tibet and close down “the slave labor camps and free the Uyghur people.” Kanter also took his messages onto the court via custom sneakers designed by Chinese activist-artist Badiucao.
On Monday, Kanter was back on Twitter, this time accusing Nike for producing sneakers in labor camps. The next day, he invited Nike’s president Phil Knight and NBA legends Michael Jordan and Lebron James to visit the factories.
While the NBA and Nike did not comment immediately, and did not respond to Sportico’s requests for comment, Kanter’s statements resulted in Chinese video streaming platform Tencent cutting the live broadcast of the Celtics’ games last week. Tencent signed a five-year, $1.5 billion deal to remain the NBA’s digital partner in China in 2019. The state controlled station CCTV has been the sole broadcaster of the NBA games since 1990s.
Relations between the NBA and China have been tense since 2019, when former Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted in support of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. Following those tweets, the Chinese government stopped the broadcast of NBA games in China. The league eventually returned to Tencent except for Philadelphia’s games (where Morey moved after the 2019 season). CCTV, meanwhile, blocked the league except for two games during the 2020 NBA finals. Last year, the league lost an estimated $200 million in revenue from China.
The world’s most populous nation is an important market for the NBA with approximately 500 million fans. The basketball league also owns a $5 billion enterprise called NBA China that develops local players. However, according to an ESPN investigation, serious human rights abuses were reported in these training facilities even before Morey’s tweets. American coaches at three NBA training academies complained to NBA officials, claiming their Chinese colleagues abused young players. One of those training centers was in Xinjiang, where most of the players who trained were Uighurs.
“The best way to make people care to change this indifference situation is to make people view those messages and make campaigns relevant,” said Badiucao, who has been criticizing China for the last two decades and supports Kanter’s move to expand his message beyond Turkey. Born in Switzerland to Turkish parents, Kanter has been a vocal critic of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Kanter is a devout member of the Hizmet Movement and a follower of its leader, Fethullah Gulen, accused of the failed coup attempt in 2016. The Turkish government revoked Kanter’s Turkish passport in 2017.
“When you’re not coming from the country that is suffering from authoritarian regimes, like China, it’s hard for you to care or understand truly,” Badiucao said. Using the “NBA as a platform, or sports to convey these human rights messages, is just magical. Because now suddenly, it is a topic for every NBA fan in America and around the world.”