AT THE HEIGHT of protest over the May 2020 police murder of George Floyd, one of retired NBA star Dwyane Wade's Twitter accounts posted: "If you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything."
The tweet from an athlete celebrated for his social justice advocacy was perfectly in character. The account that it came from, however, promotes Wade's clothing line with Chinese sports apparel company Li-Ning, which the U.S. government has accused of abetting human rights abuses.
Boston Celtics center Enes Kanter Freedom has spent months condemning his NBA brethren for not doing more to draw attention to human rights abuses in China. His efforts are in addition to those of a bipartisan coalition in Congress that has called out NBA players who maintain lucrative contracts with four Chinese companies accused of being complicit in those violations. Li-Ning, Anta, Peak and 361 Degrees -- all of which have NBA stars as reps -- are identified by the U.S. government and human rights groups as using forced labor to produce their goods in China's Xinjiang region. ESPN has identified Wade and at least 17 current NBA players who have such deals.
The U.S. State Department says China is waging a targeted campaign against Muslims in Xinjiang, where more than a million Uyghurs and other minorities are held in detention camps. These groups also face abuses including forced labor, torture, involuntary sterilization, mass surveillance, family separation and repression of religious expression, according to the State Department and human rights groups.
The U.S. government views the abuse as so widespread that it presumes all goods produced in Xinjiang are tainted, unless proven otherwise. Roughly one in five cotton garments sold globally contains material from Xinjiang, and the region produces a significant portion of the world's polysilicon, which is used to make solar panels and smartphones.
"Shame on the athletes that are aware of what is happening -- who have affiliations with brands that get Xinjiang cotton," Rep. James McGovern (D-Mass.), co-chair of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, told ESPN. "And we don't use the word genocide lightly. ... It is a genocide."
China, which hosts the Beijing Olympics in February and has faced increased scrutiny as a result, denies the accusations. "The so-called 'forced labor' issue is a century-old lie invented by the U.S. and other western institutions and personnel to restrict and suppress relevant Chinese enterprises and contain China's development," Liu Pengyu, a spokesman in China's Washington embassy, told ESPN in a statement.
Nike, Adidas and other well-known brands that employ athlete endorsers across sports have recently moved away from cotton and other products made in Xinjiang following a global outcry. But Chinese companies, which are uniquely interested in NBA players because of the sport's immense popularity in the country, have countered with a patriotic pledge to continue using it. This defiant stance leaves NBA players serving as pitchmen for brands accused of using the slave labor.
That role is at odds with the reputation that the NBA and its players have developed in recent years as social justice leaders and goes against the spirit of a new federal law banning imports from Xinjiang. For the NBA, the controversy only intensifies the difficult crosscurrents it must navigate doing business in basketball-obsessed China, its largest foreign market but one often accused of disregarding human rights.
SINCE THE MID-2000s, more than 50 NBA players have signed deals with Chinese brands eager to capitalize on basketball's popularity in the world's most populous nation. The shoe deals had been business as usual until the Trump administration formally deemed China's actions in Xinjiang a genocide just before leaving office in January 2021. The Biden administration repeated that designation in March.
As the U.S. and other countries grow more vocal in denouncing China's actions in Xinjiang, Congress has repeatedly called upon NBA stars to drop their deals. Those stars include Wade, who initially signed a 10-year, $75 million contract with Li-Ning in 2012 that was later converted into a lifetime agreement in 2018, ahead of Wade's final season. Warriors sharpshooter Klay Thompson signed with Anta Sports in 2014 and re-upped in 2017 on a reported 10-year, $80 million deal. Trail Blazers guard and players' association president CJ McCollum left Nike in 2017 for a richer, five-year agreement with Li-Ning, while the Hornets' Gordon Hayward joined Anta in 2018 on a four-year deal. In 2020, Warriors swingman Andrew Wiggins struck a multiyear deal with Peak, and Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon agreed to a contract with 361 Degrees, making him what the company called "the new face" of its basketball division.
Representatives for those players did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Likewise, other players and many of their representatives refused to speak on the record. "It is such a sensitive topic," said one agent who represents a player who endorses a Chinese brand. "Nobody's going to talk about it."
In June, leaders of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China sent a letter to the National Basketball Players Association, asking officials to "encourage players to end their endorsement deals" with the Chinese brands. Two months later, outgoing NBPA executive director Michele Roberts responded that the union does not endorse the "commission of genocide or crimes against humanity."
Roberts said the union would share lawmakers' concerns with affected players, but several agents representing those with Chinese shoe deals told ESPN the union never alerted them to the request from Washington. Asked about that discrepancy, a union spokesman insisted the information had been passed along.
"The National Basketball Players Association has previously had an impressive track record of using their voice for social change, and I would like to see them do more to raise awareness about the ongoing genocide in Xinjiang and to help their members understand the risks of partnering with companies that promote products made with forced labor," Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), co-chair of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, told ESPN. "These sponsorship deals need to end."
Last fall, at the start of the current NBA season, the commission again called out NBA players with ties to Chinese brands in a letter asking Customs and Border Protection officials to ban the products from entering the U.S.
"We are very concerned about the sportswear companies ... which have high-profile endorsements from NBA players," the lawmakers wrote. "We do not want sports stars or other celebrity influencers to knowingly or unwittingly endorse goods made with forced labor."
The government's efforts culminated in a bipartisan bill President Joe Biden signed in December banning the import of goods from Xinjiang. The move came just weeks after the Biden administration announced it would not send an official delegation to the Olympics in Beijing to protest China's human rights abuses. Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia are among the other nations joining in the diplomatic boycott of the Games.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver said the league has no authority over player endorsements. "Players choose which sportswear companies they partner with, and those partnerships are not subject to approval by the NBA," he said in an email to ESPN.
In recent years, NBA players have been lauded for their social justice activism, with many taking part in protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. But Louisa Greve, director of global advocacy for the Uyghur Human Rights Project, said they risk tarnishing their well-earned reputations when they stand up for human rights at home but ignore them abroad.
"If athletes are speaking up and saying I stand for justice, they cannot be selective and exempt China and an ongoing genocide from their concern," she said.
Silver defended the league and its players, saying it is no surprise that they are most vocal about the issues they know best. "The league and players' track record of leadership in social justice speaks for itself," he said. "I don't believe it's hypocritical that the league and players focus their attention on issues that are closest to home and impact our own communities."
He added that players' popularity in China can help build bridges between nations, even if players choose not to directly address human rights concerns there. "We believe in the importance of engagement and the power of sports to create connections among disparate people," he said, calling the connections "a prerequisite for meaningful dialogue on human rights and other critically important issues."
Wallace Prather, the agent for Atlanta Hawks guard and Peak endorser Lou Williams, described the Chinese brands as lucrative alternatives to U.S. firms like Nike. "These guys have likeness, these guys have celebrity within their own right," Prather said. "They have the ability to capitalize, not only financially but give themselves the chance to have a signature shoe that is going to impact their families, impact a lot of things they are doing. So, anyone who is taking a hard stand against it, I think they should give alternatives of what they should do."
Williams has made more than $85 million in salary over his 16-year NBA career, according to Spotrac, a sports contract database. Some of the top Chinese-brand endorsers have earned considerably more on the court: Wade $196 million, Gordon Hayward $207 million and Thompson -- widely known in China as "China Klay" -- $182 million.
An agent who asked not to be identified suggested that NBA players are being unfairly targeted by Congress for doing business in China, where U.S. corporations -- and athletes across sports who endorse them -- allegedly benefit from a broad range of abusive business practices beyond forced labor.
"As a country, we've become so intertwined with China economically that it is hard to separate," the agent said. "Is Congress telling the Marriotts, the Apples and all the other corporate interests not to do business there?"
IN LATE OCTOBER, about 150 protesters gathered on Washington's National Mall holding signs with slogans such as "Stop Uyghur Genocide" and "Forced Labor Fashion Is Not My Style." They also carried pictures of people they say have been detained in concentration camps in Xinjiang. The crowd cheered and chanted when the Celtics' Freedom emerged from a silver SUV to address them.
"As an NBA athlete it is saddening, disgraceful and disgusting to see [my colleagues] remain silent about China," he said. "And that's why I will not be silent."
Freedom, in social media posts and appearances since October, has repeatedly called out the Chinese government and condemned those he deems complicit in not doing more to oppose Chinese repression. He has tagged some of the sport's biggest stars, including LeBron James and Michael Jordan.
Another speaker at the Washington event was Kalbinur Gheni, a Uyghur whose 39-year-old sister was taken to a Chinese "reeducation" camp in 2018 and later sent to a prison. Gheni said her sister, an art teacher with two children, has been sentenced to 17 years for observing religious rites and for keeping religious books and loaning them to others. Gheni, who studied in Malaysia before moving to the U.S. in 2019, said her sister is among a dozen family members who have been detained in China over the past four years.
"They are using our loved ones in the camp as slave labor," Gheni later told ESPN. "And they are profiting off them.
"When you talk about this NBA business, they should be supportive. It is not because I am a Uyghur, but as a human being. If they keep silent no matter what the Chinese government does, that means they are going to lose for long term their dignity and humanity."
In recent years, the NBA, like many multinational businesses, has struggled to toe the line between upholding democratic values of transparency and free speech, while not running afoul of China's fine-tuned sensitivity to criticism and dissent.
A top executive with a major sports/entertainment agency declined comment on behalf of multiple clients who have Chinese shoe contracts, but privately questioned why the NBA didn't address the China issue head-on three years ago, when Chinese state television network CCTV yanked NBA games off the air following a tweet by then-Rockets GM Daryl Morey in support of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.
"This has been almost a festering story -- the partnership with China and the league itself," the executive said. "And also, I think your employer [ESPN] is then a tentacle of that, too. There is this whole knot to untie. And who is where and where our business interests overlap."
ESPN has had a content-sharing partnership with Chinese company Tencent since 2016. Tencent pulled Celtics games off its streaming service after Freedom criticized the government in October. It also stopped showing 76ers games after Morey joined Philadelphia as head of basketball operations. In addition to its partnership with Tencent, ESPN "is a non-voting board observer and owns a small stake" in NBA China, according to an ESPN spokesperson.
Disney, ESPN's parent company, previously faced criticism from human rights activists for filming part of a 2020 live-action remake of "Mulan" in Xinjiang. Disney and other Hollywood studios have also come under fire for editing shows and films for Chinese markets.
The competing pressures facing multinational brands are not likely to end anytime soon. For NBA players with relatively short careers in which they can earn big money, it is easy to rationalize taking the cash, one analyst said.
"It's pretty easy to be on the right side of things when there is not a lot of money involved," Victor Matheson, a sports economist at the College of the Holy Cross, told ESPN. For many players profiting from shoe deals with Chinese firms, the Uyghur genocide may feel remote, he added, an issue to which they may say, "'Sorry, that is not my deal, not my problem.'"
Chamath Palihapitiya, a venture capitalist and part-owner of the Golden State Warriors, again brought attention to the NBA's uneasy relationship with China when he made a similar point bluntly in a recent episode of his podcast, All-In.
"Nobody cares about what's happening to the Uyghurs, OK? ... I'm just telling you ... a very hard, ugly truth. Of all the things I care about, yes, it is below my line." The comments stirred a social media firestorm, and the Warriors distanced themselves from Palihapitiya, who later walked back his comments.
U.S. lawmakers and human rights monitors say NBA stars, given their cultural influence, could make a difference in curbing China's behavior if they chose to walk away from these companies.
"If [Wade] and others said, 'No, I'm not going to do this,' others will follow. This is the kind of pressure that China understands," McGovern told ESPN. He added: "The more there is affiliation with American athletes, American companies and corporations, the more they can get cover for the terrible things that are going on."