Congressional body CECC calls on U.S. basketball stars to stop endorsing Chinese sports brands

A U.S. congressional committee on China has asked American basketball stars to stop endorsing Chinese sports brands that use cotton grown in Xinjiang, voicing opposition to forced labor practices in the region.

Senator Jeff Merkley (D-CA), chairman of the Congressional and Executive Committee on China (CECC), and Representative Jim McGovern (D-CA), co-chairman, sent a letter to the National Basketball Association (NBA), the men’s professional basketball league organization, on Tuesday (June 1) with the request.

The letter noted that more than a dozen NBA players have signed contracts with Chinese sports brand companies such as Anta (ANTA), Li-Ning (Li-Ning) and Peak (Peak) and that “the players continue to sign new contracts with ANTA Sports Brands following recent revelations in the Western media that these companies continue to use Xinjiang cotton.”

The letter said that Anta, Li Ning and Peak all publicly support Xinjiang cotton and that NBA players’ sponsorship of these products “may make them complicit in the use of forced labor” and that “we believe that maintaining business dealings with these companies that use Xinjiang cotton creates reputational for NBA players and the NBA itself danger” because the U.S. government has determined that the Chinese government is committing genocide in Xinjiang and has banned the importation of Xinjiang cotton.

The letter urged the National Basketball Association Players Union (NBPA) to educate players about the ongoing genocide and forced labor in Xinjiang and said, “We hope that such efforts will result in players using their contracts with Anta, Li Ning and Pique to pressure these companies to stop using Xinjiang cotton. If that doesn’t happen, we’ll encourage the players to end their endorsement deals with those companies.”

China is an extremely important overseas market for the NBA, whose relationship with China deteriorated in late 2019 because of a tweet by then-Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey in support of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. China’s official television station interrupted its broadcasts of NBA games because of Morey’s subsequently deleted tweet.

Meanwhile, the incident led many American politicians to accuse the NBA of being too soft on China’s communist government.

In an October 2019 speech, then-Vice President Mike Pence, a Republican, blasted some NBA stars and owners for routinely criticizing the United States and “losing their voices” on human rights and freedom in China. He said, “The NBA is in bed with China’s communist government, suppressing free speech and acting like a wholly owned subsidiary of that authoritarian regime.”

Last July, the NBA said it had cut ties with an NBA-run basketball academy in Xinjiang after allegations surfaced that local employees were abusing teenage players and harassing foreign staffers at the facility.

NBA Chairman Adam Silver later said in an interview with CNN last October that the NBA’s long-standing interaction with China has had a “positive” impact on mutual understanding between the U.S. and China. He said he continues to believe that civil exchanges help the two cultures learn from each other and export American values.