Show caption The NBA’s attitude towards the Uyghur genocide and China more generally: callous and selfish. Photograph: John G Mabanglo/EPA China Sport is indifferent to the Uyghur genocide: the Warriors investor said the quiet part out loud The NBA has owned the inside track on the sports world’s most coveted growth market, with operations worth about $5bn Andrew Lawrence @by_drew Thu 20 Jan 2022 13.00 GMT Share on Facebook
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The US state department has described the Uyghur human rights issue as a genocide and the largest-scale detention of an ethno-religious community since the second world war. And yet to hear one leading professional sports owner tell it, “nobody cares”.
Chamath Palihapitiya, a billionaire investor in the NBA’s Golden State Warriors, used the most recent episode of his All-In podcast to weigh in, dismissing the Uyghur crisis as “a very hard, ugly truth” that’s “below my line”. When his co-host David Sacks countered that the Uyghurs were a great, if not pressing, concern, Palihapitiya dug in: “If you’re asking me do I care about a segment of a class of people in another country? Not until we can take care of ourselves will I prioritise them over us.”
There’s no doubt Palihapitiya’s comments were callous, selfish and confirmed popular suspicions of how the 1% views the world. But they were also an honest reflection of the NBA’s attitude towards the Uyghur genocide and China more generally.
As Palihapitiya’s soundbite went viral over the weekend, the Warriors were quick to minimise his role with the team. “As a limited investor who has no day-to-day operating functions with the Warriors, Mr Palihapitiya does not speak on behalf of our franchise, and his views certainly don’t reflect those of our organisation,” the team said in a statement on Monday. Hours later, Palihapitiya circulated his own statement, recognising that “I come across as lacking empathy” upon re-listening to his comments.
For the past seven years, Xi Jinping’s Chinese Communist party has advanced policies aimed at the Turkic Muslim Uyghur minority in the western Xinjiang region, marginalizing them to the brink of extinction. It’s believed that at least 1 million Uyghurs have been arbitrarily detained inside government internment camps. At more than 380 government black sites, Uyghurs have been subject to psychological indoctrination and forced sterilisation, while those detained have been coerced to manufacture clothing, face masks and other products.
Ever since the Washington Bullets made history in August 1979 as the first US pro sports team to be invited to China following an ease in diplomatic relations, the NBA has owned the inside track on the sports world’s most coveted growth market.
State media carried NBA games in the 1980s, fueling the game’s popularity. The global success of the 1992 USA Olympic squad, AKA The Dream Team, inspired a generation of Chinese players.
In 2002 the Houston Rockets chose Shanghai native Yao Ming with the draft’s top pick, marking the first time an international player had been selected that high without having previously played at a US college. And while China has not produced many NBA-calibre players besides Ming, a 2016 Naismith Hall of Fame inductee who chairs the Chinese Basketball Association, Stephon Marbury, Gilbert Arenas, Steve Francis and many others Americans have been enjoying blockbuster second acts playing in China after their NBA careers were done.
This two-decades-long cultural exchange has set the foundation for the NBA’s China operation, which has been valued at more than $5bn. But as the league’s interests in China have deepened, it has struggled to walk the line between respecting the free speech rights of its core stakeholders and appeasing its sensitive Chinese partners.
Chamath Palihapitiya is a billionaire investor in NBA’s Golden State Warriors. Photograph: Brendan McDermid/Reuters
Three years ago the Philadelphia 76ers’ Daryl Morey, one of the league’s most respected general managers, tweeted in support of the Hong Kong protests. The message cost him his position with the Houston Rockets and resulted in a temporary ban of NBA games on state TV – an estimated $400m hit. When LeBron James toed the company line and said Morey was “not really educated on the situation”, his standing in China took a major hit, and Hong Kongers took to the streets again to protest him.
Last fall Chinese TV blacked out a Boston Celtics games after centre Enes Kaenter Freedom, a Swiss-born Turkish Muslim who has been a strident CCP critic, assailed the state’s human rights record in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong.
In 2020 allegations of child abuse surfaced at NBA-supported, CCP-run basketball academies, including one in Xinjiang. And while the NBA closed the Xinjiang academy in the wake of those allegations, its business relationship with China did not fundamentally change.
The Guardian emailed the league for a statement on Palihapitiya; it did not respond.
Given the efforts the NBA has made to market itself as a league that’s more attuned to injustice than others – two years ago the Milwaukee Bucks led a weekend long sports walkout following the shooting of Jacob Blake, for example – some critics including Ted Cruz, Tucker Carlson have claimed the NBA only cares about social justice when it isn’t bad for business.
They have a point. But where they lose it is in trying to hold to account Black players, coaches and team executives who prioritise the fight against racism in America (something they experience in their daily lives) over a genocide halfway around the world. If anyone should take responsibility, it’s Silver and the league’s owners for putting profits ahead of the human cost.
It’s not just the NBA. Late last year tennis pro Peng Shuai mysteriously disappeared after she made sexual assault allegations against a Communist party leader. This issue has yet to be fully resolved, yet only the WTA stopped their activities in China in response; other leagues have not stopped their relations with China in solidarity. Beijing is weeks away from hosting the Winter Olympics and in December the Biden administration cited the “ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity … and other human rights abuses”, as the reason they wouldn’t be sending a government delegation to the Games. But that boycott has been denounced by the World Athletics president, Sebastian Coe, as “a hollow, meaningless and damaging gesture” – a stance that could have something to do with the two Diamond League athletics events that are slated for Chinese soil this summer.
Hence why it’s so surprising that Palihapitiya would be the one to give voice to the sports world’s apathy toward the Uyghurs. Until he opened his mouth, few NBA fans knew him. A founding member of Facebook’s management team, Palihapitiya helped spearhead the portal’s transformation into a $100bn business – only to come to regret that effort. “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works,” he told an audience at Stanford’s business school in 2017.
Last January, Palihapitiya announced plans to challenge incumbent Gavin Newsom in California’s gubernatorial recall election, promising to bump the state tax down to 0 from 16% if elected. But he pulled out less than a month later.
Palihapitiya, whose family fled Sri Lanka for Canada when he was a child, acknowledged this history in his clarifying statement on Monday. “As a refugee, my family fled a country with its own set of human rights issues so this is something that is very much a part of my lived experience,” he wrote. “To be clear, my belief is that human rights matter, whether in China, the United States, or elsewhere. Full stop.”
But by then there was no more denying how sports leagues really feel when it comes to sport’s wider attitude toward the Uyghurs and the issue of civil rights in China. Not after Palihapitiya said the quiet part out loud.