On Wednesday, ESPN reporters Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada dropped a bombshell investigative story about the NBA academies in China, which are seeking to find the next Yao Ming. One camp was closed in Xinjiang amidst human rights abuses in the region and physical abuse of kids at the camp. One former NBA employee compared the atmosphere in Xinjiang, a police state, to Nazi Germany. Regarding child abuse, the story wrote about one instance at a camp in China: "One former coach described watching a Chinese coach fire a ball into a young player's face at point-blank range and then '"kick him in the gut.'"
The ESPN machine often uses major stories broken by their newsgathering operation as a jumping off point for conversation on television throughout the day. I watched ESPN television all day on Thursday to see how they would handle the story. It was not discussed on Get Up, First Take, SportsCenter, The Jump, Jalen & Jacoby, Around the Horn, or Pardon the Interruption.
Discussion on ESPN TV
The only TV show that tackled it was Highly Questionable, which spent a full segment on it:
Le Batard said he was "proud of ESPN" for covering this story, believing that the media has not covered the NBA and other American corporations tolerating human rights abuses in China as part of capitalist expansion. He said that as the son of Communist exiles all these relationships make him uneasy. "The way that the NBA has handled it has seemed particularly weak, even with LeBron James having what I believe to be his worst public moment as an athlete because he took the wrong side talking about Daryl Morey and free speech," he said.
"These are complicated issues," said Pablo Torre. "These are things involving names like Uighur -- the Muslim minorities -- that are hard to pronounce and spell. This is a far off land. I understand all of this. But the clarity in this story is worth celebrating and acknowledging and discussing. Because, what's happening in northwest China is a series of human rights abuses and atrocities. You have these kids in these camps who are being physically abused -- child abuse -- within the basketball context, with the NBA logo on all of this. That's worrisome. You then add the fact that, yes, as many as a million Uighurs are in concentration camps, where there are forced sterilizations, forced abortions, and on down the line in terms of horrifying facts."
"It's especially insane, and it's insane for this reason -- I love the NBA. Basketball's my favorite sport. But they didn't need this," Torre continued. "They didn't need to be in northwest China. They didn't need to be in China at all. What they did, though, was want it, because there are giant dollar signs all over that part of the globe. The NBA, like so many corporations in America, sees the world as a Risk board. As territories to plant a flag in and conquer and profit off of. Except, in this case, they didn't do the homework -- they outsourced it. To the government of China."
Outkick readers have been familiar with the story of the NBA in China, as site founder Clay Travis, and writer Bobby Burack have been crushing the NBA, commissioner Adam Silver, and LeBron James about it for months -- since Daryl Morey supported Hong Kong protestors. They argue that is that it is supremely hypocritical for the NBA and its players to be so gung-ho about social justice in America but turn a blind eye towards genocidal atrocities elsewhere when it's financially expedient for them.
Senator Josh Hawley and Senator Marsha Blackburn have been pressing the league about it -- when Senator Hawley wrote a letter to the NBA and cc'ed the media asking if social justice slogans worn on the back of jerseys in the return to play would be permissible if they said "Free Hong Kong". This letter garnered much more national attention when ESPN NBA reporter Adrian Wojnarowski responded "Fuck you" from his iPhone and was suspended for two weeks.
ESPN Should Have Covered this Story More on TV
Le Batard and Torre were right to say that this story was excellent and merits discussion, which is why it was disappointing that the rest of ESPN's television lineup didn't cover it at all (it was covered elsewhere on radio when Sarah Spain interviewed Mark Fainaru-Wada).
I'm sensitive to the facts that ESPN viewers don't really want this type of coverage in their sports escape, and that Thursday was unique in the sense that it featured the return of the NBA games which of course they were going to talk about wall to wall.
Clay Travis is an on-air personality on FS1; I didn't track their lineup Thursday and don't know if they talked about it or not, but they didn't originate the story -- and news and journalism are less a part of the network's identity. ESPN does deserve a lot of institutional credit for reporting this story out and releasing it on the eve of said NBA return. To not just report out that story but do it on that day required editorial backbone.
I'm not saying ESPN should've dropped everything and breathlessly covered the NBA and China all day like they would about, like, a Patriots bombshell. However, there are a lot of places in their lineup where mentioning it would've been appropriate. Get Up and SportsCenter could have interviewed one of the Fainaru brothers or even narrated a quick summary that pushed viewers to read the full story online. A discussion about it on PTI would have been substantive, and also very meaningful as it is typically ESPN's highest-rated show. Around the Horn could also have handled it well. Both would've needed a good amount of time to handle the nuances the right way.
First Take would be a good spot for it in theory because it's a platform where conversation topics have more length and latitude than almost anywhere else not just on ESPN but all of television. However, to put it nicely, Stephen A. Smith did not shine in that NBA/China discussion previously -- he sounded a lot like LeBron James when discussing Daryl Morey -- so the risk/reward of covering that story there probably favored punting for ESPN.
That it wasn't discussed on ESPN's NBA show, The Jump, is wild to me. Rachel Nichols, like Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser, has a journalism background at the Washington Post. She deserves credit for the time she grilled Mark Cuban, probably the most famous NBA owner, for abuse of women by others in the Mavericks' organization. Even on the busy day where the NBA was returning, this NBA China story should have been something that she covered.
The bottom line is that brothers Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada deserve a ton of credit for reporting out a bombshell story about the NBA and China, and it would have been nice to see their work rewarded with more coverage on ESPN's television apparatus.