Kyrie Irving — the singular basketball talent and moth-to-the-flame of NBA controversy — has embarked on a rebranding campaign with his new corporate benefactor, Chinese apparel giant ANTA. Irving is now the superstar face of ANTA Basketball — in a deal that also makes him the brand’s chief creative officer. In late September, Irving and ANTA unveiled Kyrie’s new logo called “Enlightened Warrior.”
This ANTA debut turns the page on a disturbing chapter in Irving’s career. But has his deal with the Chinese shoe giant simply opened the lid on even darker controversy? ANTA has been linked to forced labor by Uyghur Muslims — a part of “atrocities” the U.S. State Department has decried as “crimes against humanity” and a “genocide” by the Chinese government.
A congressional letter to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, made public Oct. 3, warns that ANTA and other Chinese apparel firms “publicly embrace the use of supply chains linked to forced labor that helps fund the genocide committed in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.” The letter adds that it “is past time for the NBA to stand as a leader in the fight against forced labor.” A second letter to the National Basketball Players Association specifically sounds alarm about Irving’s ANTA deal: “While the genocide continues,” it states, ANTA “likely continue[s] to profit from the systematic use of forced labor.”
Attempts to reach Irving and his representatives were unsuccessful. ANTA did not respond to initial questions from Rolling Stone. However, after publication of this story, Irving’s representative released a statement on behalf of the company and its new Chief Creative Officer.
“First and foremost, both Kyrie Irving and ANTA stand firmly against human rights violations. The allegations surrounding ANTA’s involvement in such practices are gravely concerning. However, ANTA has consistently clarified that their suppliers are prohibited from using forced or involuntary labor in any part of their manufacturing processes,” the statement reads.
It continues, “We urge the media and the public to approach this matter with fairness and nuance, refraining from perpetuating narratives that are biased or unfounded. Kyrie’s association with ANTA seeks to enhance basketball’s creative side and uplift emerging talent. We remain committed to ethical business practices and are always open to informed, constructive dialogue.”
Irving became a footwear free agent after he got axed from his Nike shoe deal late last year. The star point guard had repeatedly promoted a film, Hebrews to Negroes, that peddled ugly nonsense about Jews worshiping Satan. Irving’s refusal to immediately denounce the despicable “documentary” resulted in his being suspended by both his team, the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets, and by Nike — which terminated his deal last December. (“Kyrie stepped over the line,” Nike co-founder Phil Knight explained. “It’s that simple.”) Irving had previously made himself a headache for the Nets by refusing to get vaccinated against Covid-19, rendering him unable to play in 35 home games. Not long after this latest episode, Irving demanded a trade — and was promptly shipped off to the Dallas Mavericks.
In defending his antivax politics, Irving had cast himself as a bold fighter for “freedom to make choices with your life without someone telling you what the fuck to do” and he denounced “government controls.” He has sought to roll this personal branding forward into his new deal with ANTA. Inking the partnership in July, Irving wore a hat reading “FREE.” He insisted that the company was a fit with “my virtues” and “my morals.” (In recent years, Irving has also been vocal about his religious conversion, declaring himself “part of the Muslim community” and “committed to Islam.”)
There’s a dark irony to Irving’s celebration of freedom in his new business partnership. ANTA proudly sources cotton from China’s Xinjiang province, in defiance of international bans on the material, which is closely linked to the forced labor of Uyghur Muslims in the humanitarian catastrophe in the region.
“The U.S. government recognizes what’s happening to the Uyghurs as genocide, and part of the genocide is the use of forced labor,” says Arlsan Hidayat, program director at Campaign for Uyghurs, a human rights group. “China is doing everything they can to profit off this.” With his lucrative new deal, Hidayat alleges, “Kyrie Irving is being complicit. And his followers who are going to buy these ANTA jerseys and in basketball shoes, they’re inadvertently being complicit.”
Hidayat adds: “I would urge Kyrie to do thorough research on the matter — and stand on the right side of history.”
The Uyghurs are a Turkic minority population of 12 million living in the western Xinjiang province of China. Labeled a security threat by the Chinese government, upward of 1 million Uyghurs have been forced into prison camps. Horrific allegations have surfaced that Uyghurs interned in the camps have been subjected to rape, sterilization, and torture. The Chinese government has also allegedly housed factories, including textile shops, inside these prisons, turning them into labor camps.
The Uyghur population outside the camps is hardly more free. They are systematically surveilled and oppressed — and forced to work jobs assigned to them by Beijing, often far from their families. The Chinese government has imposed a system of mass, forced labor by hundreds of thousands of Uyghyrs in Xinjiang’s sprawling cotton fields.
This repression and forced relocation aim to erase Uyghur identity, experts say. “It’s all about separating families and crushing their culture,” says Laura Murphy, a professor of human rights and contemporary slavery at Sheffield Hallam University in England, and the lead investigator on a report detailing forced labor in China’s cotton industry. “You’re not allowed to pray, you can’t wear a headscarf, you can’t fast during Ramadan. You can’t name your children Muhammad. You can’t wear a beard. You can’t really even have children — because people are all separated out by gender, and young people are being sent away to work.”
The international community has sought to punish China by targeting the nation’s lucrative cotton trade. Xinjiang province alone produces nearly one-fifth of the world’s cotton. In 2020, the Swiss-based Better Cotton Initiative — a transnational group that seeks to curb labor abuses in the industry — declared it would no longer certify Xinjiang cotton. ANTA swiftly took the side of the Chinese state by ending its partnership in the Initiative. “We have been purchasing and using cotton produced from China including Xinjiang region,” the company declared in April 2021, “and we will continue to purchase and use cotton from China.”
For scholars of the Uyghur oppression, the company’s unabashed stance removes the need for gumshoeing or guesswork. “The thing about ANTA is they’ll tell you where [their cotton] comes from. It comes from Xinjiang!” says Murphy. “They’re just out there celebrating their own lack of ethical standards.”
The company’s intersection with forced Uyghur labor should be no mystery to the NBA — nor to Kyrie Irving. Back in 2021, the co-chairs of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) wrote a first open letter about ANTA and other Chinese apparel firms to the National Basketball Players Association, for which Irving was then serving as vice president.
The letter highlighted the role of forced labor in the Xinjiang cotton fields as a key component of the “horrific human rights abuses” unfolding in China. It also exhorted NBA stars “to end their endorsement deals” with Chinese companies — including ANTA specifically — warning that “commercial relationships with companies that source cotton in Xinjiang create reputational risks for NBA players and the NBA itself.” The NBPA did not respond to Rolling Stone questions. But the NBPA told The Wall Street Journal at the time that it “does not — implicitly or otherwise — endorse the ‘commission of genocide or crimes against humanity.’”
The U.S. government now considers any supply chain that crosses Xinjiang tainted. In December 2021, President Joe Biden signed the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, a law that directly targets Chinese cotton by banning the import of goods sourced from, or produced in, Xinjiang — absent “clear and convincing evidence that the goods … were not produced using forced labor.”
The political chorus denouncing ANTA is bipartisan. In 2022, in advance of the Beijing Winter Olympics, Florida Sen. Rick Scott, a Republican, called out the International Olympic Committee for using ANTA as an official apparel provider, insisting that if the IOC couldn’t declare ANTA’s products are forced-labor free, “the IOC is 100 percent complicit in General Secretary Xi’s genocide.” (The IOC ultimately relied on ANTA for uniforms made with recycled materials that, it underscored, “do not contain cotton.”)
ANTA had previously put itself on the NBA’s radar as a company more loyal to the Beijing government than to the ideals of liberty now espoused by Irving. In 2019, ANTA vigorously denounced then-Houston Rockets executive Daryl Morey when he supported Hong Kong protestors, tweeting: “Fight for Freedom, Stand with Hong Kong.” In response, on the Chinese social media network Weibo, ANTA said it was “shocked” by Morey’s remarks and declared: “ANTA firmly opposes and resists all actions that harm the interests of the motherland.”
Its overt embrace of Xinjiang cotton aside, ANTA’s supply chains are opaque — even for an apparel industry that is no stranger to hidden labor abuses. The company received a score of five out of 100 on a recent scorecard by Know the Chain, a nonprofit dedicated to addressing “forced labor risks” in the apparel industry. That’s just about the lowest score imaginable. And it compares to an industry average of 41; Nike received a 62 and Adidas an 86. Calling out ANTA, the scorecard says the company “does not disclose the steps it has taken to address the risks of alleged Uyghur forced labor across its supply chain tiers.”
ANTA did not respond to questions, including about whether its Irving deal contains any pledges to make the company’s supply chain more transparent. ANTA’s investor relations page includes a blanket declaration that “suppliers are prohibited from using forced or involuntary labor in the manufacturing, contracting or subcontracting process or indirect relationship associated with our products.”
The financial terms of Irving’s reported five-year deal were not announced, but it likely dwarfs ANTA’s 10-year, $80 million deal with Golden State Warriors star Klay Thompson — whose ANTA product lines include one dubbed “Golden Silence.” (Thompson could not be reached for comment.) The Chinese brand has also signed deals with other notable NBA talents, including Gordon Hayward and Keyvon Looney.
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) is the Senate co-chair of the CECC, which sent the letters to the NBA and NBPA. He tells Rolling Stone that it’s “deeply troubling” to see “American players who are essentially supporting China’s authoritarian repression.” The senator invites Irving to “take some time and talk about the connections between ANTA and slavery,” adding, “Is that really what he wants to be associated with?”
ANTA envisions Irving as something far beyond a shoe icon, though he’s likely to be valuable as that. (Kyrie’s Nikes were reportedly the second most profitable line of a current NBA star behind LeBron James.) Irving’s role as chief creative officer will have him serving as the Chinese firm’s American brand ambassador — and talent scout. “My CCO role at ANTA is key,” Irving explained during a Mavericks press availability. “I can sign other artists; I can sign other athletes. I can basically sign my peers and also negotiate favorable terms that I know the industry is not offering anybody else.”
The NBA — which is seeking to deepen its inroads into the massive Chinese market — has been muted on player deals with companies like ANTA, calling them player choices over which the league has no control. The league office did not respond to questions from Rolling Stone.
The only prominent basketball voice to question Irving’s new deal is former NBA center and fellow Muslim Enes Freedom, who told the right-wing sports outlet OutKick in August that Irving was squandering his “courageous” vaccine stand by “signing a deal with the biggest dictatorship in the world.”
Even viewed purely as a business proposition, the deal is a high-wire act for both Irving and for ANTA, which is now the world’s fourth largest sporting goods company behind Nike, Adidas, and Puma. The partnership pairs a company that is clearly committed to the party line with a superstar athlete who values iconoclastic expression above cash, stardom, and even the chance at championships. Can Irving ever be accountable to a corporate parent on the other side of the planet — a world he once declared was flat?
UPDATE 3:01pm: This story has been updated with a statement of behalf of Irving and ANTA.