Most Africans don't fare so well.

Photographer: Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

African Victims of Basketball's Global Push

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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Cuban baseball players are the face of human trafficking in sports, with harrowing tales of drug smugglers and hostage situations, such as Yasiel Puig's dangerous escape to America. But a recent report sheds light on a new group at risk: African basketball players.

Alexandra Starr of Harper's magazine tells the story of Chukwuemeka Ene, a Nigerian who was brought to the U.S. along with two other players by a basketball scout who promised him a college education and a shot at pro ball. Instead, he found himself sleeping on floors, lacking food and in the country illegally -- after the scout and the coach he was staying with failed to register him at the high school that was sponsoring his F-1 visa. 

According to Starr, Ene's story is not unique, but is indicative of the pitfalls of the informal recruiting of foreign hoops players, particularly from Africa. The National Basketball Association does have official channels for recruiting in Africa, with development camps and programs such as Basketball Without Borders. But the potential payoff from finding elite young talent that eventually makes it to the pros has created networks of informal recruiting across the continent. While the scope of the practice is very hard to judge, Sam Greer, the scout who brought Ene to America, told Starr he has done the same with around 250 other foreign players. 

At the heart of it all is the Amateur Athletic Union. AAU basketball operates year-round, and gives college scouts and potential sponsors exposure to talented players as young as six. "Virtually every U.S.-born NBA star ... played for AAU teams," Starr writes. "This puts extra pressure on AAU coaches to constantly enlist new talent." AAU tournaments are sponsored by sneaker companies including Nike and Adidas, placing a premium on finding the next big thing. It's a motivating factor in recruiting players abroad. 

For scouts to receive the maximum payoff, they need their recruits to be indebted to them. With U.S.-born players, this may mean forging an emotional bond that will be rewarded when they sign an NBA contract. But with foreign recruits, unscrupulous scouts can make sure their players are entirely dependent on them. And, when the talent doesn't materialize according to plan, the scout may cut his losses. This is what Ene believes happened to him and the two players recruited with him, who ended up being dropped by their host families and sent into foster care. 

Treating young players as commodities isn't unique to basketball; it's emblematic in the fight college athletes are waging against the NCAA for better compensation. But when a foreign recruit's stock falls, the consequences can be much more dire than losing a scholarship. They find themselves in a strange country with no support system. Ene's visa status prevented him from applying for financial aid, which kept him out of college. He ended up sleeping in a men's shelter. He now has legal status, and works as a security guard.

This trafficking of recruits is partly a consequence of the globalization of basketball, a major goal of NBA for years. African basketball talent first came on the radar in the 1980s, with Hakeem Olajuwon and Dikembe Mutombo, but it hasn't exploded on the continent, where soccer still reigns supreme. Still, the ever-increasing grip of American media is sure to turn new cultures onto basketball -- Ene said he was inspired by watching Michael Jordan on ESPN, transmitted to his home in Nigeria via satellite. And as NBA initiatives continue to increase the sport's visibility in the developing world, the temptation to open informal pipelines of new recruits to America will increase accordingly. The league is to be commended for creating new talent pools to be legitimately developed and scouted, but this also creates more risk of opportunism by shady scouts.

There have been calls for years for the NBA use its influence to fix the broken AAU system. It could also more closely oversee foreign recruiting -- in contrast to MLB's longtime turning a blind eye to human trafficking -- and help protect the next generation of global basketball stars.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Kavitha A. Davidson at kdavidson19@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net