Today
Thu 29 July 2021

CJ Werleman speaks to the ex-basketball pro about why he decided to take a stand for the Muslim minority being persecuted in China – despite pressure from the sports world to not confront the issue

When former NBA player Royce White held up a T-shirt emblazoned with the words ‘Free the Uyghurs’ during a recent courtside television interview, a Big 3 basketball league commentator asked “what does it mean?”.

“Two million ethnic minorities in East Turkestan, China, are in concentration camps,” White responded. “It’s something we gotta talk about, you know, I’m always going to talk about the real thing.”

The clip of the exchange went viral on social media, mostly because Royce had stepped onto terrain most NBA players, coaches and managers dare not – out of fear of attracting the NBA’s wrath; in the same way that the organisation and some of its elite players came down hard on the former general manager of the Houston Rockets, Daryl Morey, after he tweeted support for pro-democracy protestors in China.

Morey not only deleted his tweet, but the NBA also issued a statement in Mandarin saying: “We recognise the views expressed by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey have deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China, which is regrettable… the tweet does not represent the Rockets or the NBA.”

Why? Because China represents a significant portion of the NBA’s wealth and plans for future growth – with more than 700 million Chinese citizens now regular watchers of NBA games, according to CNBC.

But more eyebrow-raising still is the fact that, at the same time as the NBA apologised for Morey’s tweet, it was the owner of a training academy in Xinjiang – where more than three million Uyghur are detained in a network of concentration camps. When Radio Free Asia asked the NBA to comment on human rights in Xinjiang, Mark Tatum, the deputy commissioner who oversees its international operations, said: “I don’t think I need to comment one every single human rights situation around the world.”

The NBA estimated that Morey’s tweet cost it hundreds of millions of dollars.

When I asked Royce White what compelled him to take such a controversial stance, he said: “The Uyghur concentration camps are the defining humanitarian issue of our time. It’s a litmus test for coherence in our ideas about justice.”

On the NBA’s silence on the Uyghur genocide, the basketball star said that, “by and large, the NBA usually plays chameleonic politics”.

“To see them bend the knee for China in this situation is damning and absolutely irresponsible,” he added. “To see so many players and people go along with it is very disappointing… If my loves ones or I were locked in these camps, it would certainly be devastating to watch people bend the knee, but it would be especially devastating to see it from athletes and organisations that champion human rights.”

White also said that basketballer players such as LeBron James and the sportswear company Nike were indulging in “hypocrisy” in their respective positions towards human rights. “LeBron James needs to become much more serious about having consistency in the domain of social issues, leadership, truth and self-sacrifice,” he said. “Nike too for that matter. The hypocrisy is overwhelming and truly undermines their other humanitarian efforts.”

The question now is how much longer can the NBA afford to remain silent towards China, given that the US Government has described the persecution of the Uyghur as a “genocide”, with a congressional commission calling on the NBA and its players last month to end their endorsement deals with sportswear firms that source their cotton from Xinjiang, where Uyghur detainees are used as forced labour.

White said he not received any negative feedback for taking a stand on the Uyghur genocide, but “maybe it’s coming”. “It seems like the people who have a problem with it is the establishment, through their deafening silence,” he added.

The recent Uyghur Tribunal convened in the UK, which heard harrowing and heartbreaking testimonies from survivors and their former Chinese guards, made clear that the NBA’s muted silence towards China and hypocrisy towards human rights is no longer tenable.

The NBA took a leading position on Black Lives Matter. It should now declare that Uyghur Lives Matter too.

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