U.S.-China tensions, human rights and business are once again meeting uncomfortably on the basketball court.
In China, local brands are prospering from a consumer backlash against Nike, H&M and other foreign brands over their refusal to use Chinese cotton made by forced labor. Chinese brands have publicly embraced the cotton from the Xinjiang region, leading to big sales to patriotic shoppers and praise from the Beijing-controlled media.
In the United States, two of those same Chinese brands, Li-Ning and Anta, adorn the feet of N.B.A. players — and those players are being rewarded handsomely for it. Two players reached endorsement deals with Anta in February. Another signed on this week. Klay Thompson of the Golden State Warriors already had a shoe deal with Anta that has been widely reported to be valued at up to $80 million.
Dwyane Wade, the three-time N.B.A. champion and retired Miami Heat player, has a clothing line with Li-Ning that is so successful he has recruited young players for the brand.
online, however.) Still, their full-throated support of Xinjiang could have reputational consequences for the American athletes.
once said he wanted to be the Michael Jordan of Anta. His teammate James Wiseman, as well as Alex Caruso of the Los Angeles Lakers, signed with Anta earlier this year, according to the sportswear brand’s social media account. Precious Achiuwa of the Heat announced this week that he was joining Anta.
Requests for comment from Mr. Thompson and other N.B.A. players also went unanswered.
Outside China, Xinjiang has become synonymous with repression. Reports suggest as many as one million Uyghurs and other largely Muslim ethnic minorities have been held in detention camps. In March, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken accused China of continuing to “commit genocide and crimes against humanity” in the far northwestern region.
voiced his support for the Hong Kong protests on Twitter in 2019, Li-Ning and Shanghai Pudong Development Bank Credit Card Center paused their partnerships with the team. The Chinese Basketball Association, whose president is the former Rockets player Yao Ming, also suspended its cooperation with the Rockets.
quickly denied. But the incident left a scar on the N.B.A.’s reputation for supporting free speech and severely limited its access to the Chinese market.
China Central Television, the state-run television network, stopped broadcasting N.B.A. games after Mr. Morey’s message on Twitter. Late last year, it briefly resumed coverage for Games 5 and 6 of the N.B.A. finals. A week later, Mr. Morey stepped down as general manager.
In a radio interview this week, Mr. Silver said that CCTV had stopped airing N.B.A. games again, but that fans could stream them through Tencent, the Chinese internet conglomerate. He said that the N.B.A.’s partnership with China was “complicated,” but that “doesn’t mean we don’t speak up about what we see are, you know, things in China that are inconsistent with our values.”
A spokesman for the league declined to comment for this article.
Money and a large China fan base are at stake for players like Mr. Thompson and the dozens of other American athletes who have been heavily promoted by Anta and Li-Ning. Mr. Thompson has had a partnership with Anta since 2014 that has given him a popular shoe line and sponsored tours in China.
More recent deals between the companies and N.B.A. players could face questions in coming weeks as tensions between the United States and China escalate. Jimmy Butler, a five-time all-star who plays for the Heat, and the Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet signed on with Li-Ning in November. Mr. Wade, the retired Heat player, helped CJ McCollum and D’Angelo Russell, two star guards, secure deals with Li-Ning through his sportswear line.