FIBA President Hamane Niang Steps Aside Amid Sexual Abuse Investigation

Hamane Niang, the leader of basketball’s global governing body known as FIBA, led Mali’s federation at a time of systemic exploitation of female players, activists say. FIBA announced an investigation.,

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After helping to build the West African nation of Mali into a women’s basketball power, a remarkable achievement for one of the world’s poorest countries, Hamane Niang was elected in 2019 as the president of the sport’s global governing body.

As such, he is basketball’s highest-ranking international official and was scheduled to preside over the Olympic basketball competition beginning next month in Tokyo.

But, on Sunday, Niang stepped aside at least temporarily from his position as president of FIBA, basketball’s governing body, as The New York Times prepared to publish an investigation into allegations of systemic sexual harassment and abuse of dozens of female players in Mali, the majority of them teenagers, at least since the early 2000s.

Niang, 69, has not been accused of committing sexual abuse. But his critics say he largely ignored the assault of women for a dozen years between 1999 and 2011, when he served first as the president of Mali’s basketball federation and then as the country’s sports minister.

And, those critics say, with further inaction as president of FIBA, Niang continues to leave female players vulnerable to exploitation in his home country, a predominantly Muslim former French colony where women experience extreme inequality in daily life.

Niang “strongly denies” the accusations, FIBA said in an email to The Times on Sunday night, but he will step down as head of the organization and will cooperate while it conducts its own investigation. Niang did not respond to a list of questions sent to him last week by The Times through FIBA, but said in an email on Sunday night, “I was never implicated and I never had knowledge in any way of the accusations described in your correspondence.”

Two basketball coaches from Mali who are accused of abusing current and former players were suspended by FIBA, as was a high-ranking official of the Mali basketball federation.

FIBA said it has “zero tolerance for all forms of harassment and abuse and extends its heartfelt compassion for victims of such conduct.” It said it was committed to making sure the allegations contained in The Times’s report are “taken seriously and properly investigated.”

In interviews with The Times over the past several months, female players from Mali described Niang as failing to take action and in some cases being present when misconduct was occurring. Two players, who were teenagers at the time, described a harrowing encounter during a victory celebration at a nightclub in 2006 or 2007, saying their coach laughed and groped their breasts and buttocks as he danced with them.

Niang also was at the nightclub that evening in Bamako, Mali’s capital, the players said. But instead of intervening, the players said, Niang watched and laughed along at the behavior of the coach, a close friend of his named Cheick Oumar Sissoko, known widely as Yankee.

Sissoko was suspended by FIBA on Sunday. He did not respond to requests for comment.

The players said they did not alert the authorities in a country where sexual violence against women is commonplace and laws to protect them are weak.

“It’s normal, you know, for us,” said one of the players, now 32, who was among many interviewed for this story who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of humiliation and retaliation.

Players and parents also told stories of mistreatment to Human Rights Watch and to activists for children’s rights and sports reform. Niang “knew or should have known” about the abuse in Mali, said Minky Worden, the director of global initiatives for Human Rights Watch who, in a recent interview with The Times, had called for him to be suspended.

Abusive coaches and corrupt officials in the Mali basketball federation “don’t look at you as a basketball player, but as a piece of meat to have sex with,” said Aissata Tina Djibo, 31, a sports reform activist and former star on Mali’s youth and senior women’s national teams.

She and a fellow activist, Cheick Camara, said they knew of at least a dozen coaches and federation officials accused of abusing female players and at least 100 players who say they were abused.

They include, Camara said, a teenager who lived with an aunt in Bamako, Mali’s capital, because her parents were too poor to support her. The girl, he said, entered into a relationship with a coach who promised he could help develop her career and assist her financially, became pregnant at 16 and was pressured by the coach into an abortion in 2018.

“It’s a system and it needs proper investigation because no girl feels safe,” said Camara, a former player on Mali’s men’s youth national team who, with Djibo, founded a reform organization called the Association of Physical Aid and Accompaniment and have interviewed abused players and assisted them and their families.

The accusations of abuse in Mali underscore a broad failure to protect girls and young women who participate in global sports, as revealed in widely publicized scandals involving gymnastics, figure skating, swimming, synchronized swimming, soccer, basketball, water polo and taekwondo. Sports integrity measures tend to focus on curbing doping and match fixing. Safeguards designed to shield female athletes from sexual and psychological abuse are underfunded and frequently ineffective or are ignored altogether.

“Harassment and abuse in sport is a very concerning topic, which has the full attention of the I.O.C.,” the International Olympic Committee said in a statement, urging mistreatment to be reported to a FIBA or I.O.C. hotline.

Djibo, who began training with Mali’s youth national team at age 15 in 2005 and played in her first competition in 2007, said Sissoko repeatedly made lewd sexual remarks at practices that Niang attended. Niang ignored the remarks, Djibo said. Sissoko also sometimes had sex with players who relented “because they were afraid to lose their place in the squad,” Djibo said.

Asked if Niang was aware of Sissoko’s behavior, Djibo said, “Of course he knew. Yankee was his best friend, they were hanging out together. That’s why Yankee was so powerful. He had the backing of the president.”

Other activists and officials also said it was inconceivable that Niang was unaware of the abuse, given his widespread authority and the close-knit basketball community in Mali. FIBA’s bylaws include a “zero tolerance” sexual harassment policy and require that all incidents be reported to the governing body and to either law enforcement, social services or both. . Activists said they were unaware of any cases having been reported to the authorities in Mali as required by FIBA bylaws.

Ahmar Maiga, the president of Young Players Protection in Africa-Mali, a children’s rights group that has interviewed abused players, said of Mali’s basketball federation, “Every president for two decades is aware, but what did they do? No one lifted a finger.”

Practically every senior person who worked in Mali basketball was also aware of the abuse, said Serigne Thiam, the president of Mali’s premier basketball league from 2014-18 and a former self-described reform candidate for the presidency of Mali’s basketball federation.

“He was there but didn’t do anything about it,” Thiam, who now lives in Philadelphia, said of Niang’s time as federation president and sports minister. He described Sissoko as “Niang’s right hand.”

The Mali basketball federation also has long known of accusations of abusive behavior by the country’s current youth national coach, Amadou Bamba, 51, players, parents and activists said. But, they said, the federation has done little to address these or other allegations and instead has helped to cover them up.

Bamba, who has been Mali’s youth national coach since 2016, has been accused by about a dozen players and some parents of sexually assaulting team members, demanding they have sex with him to gain a roster spot and playing time and threatening or punishing those who refused, activists said.

Bamba was suspended by FIBA on Sunday. He did not respond to requests for comment.

Niang’s standing with the N.B.A. and the W.N.B.A., the power centers of international basketball, has grown precarious.

“We have shared our concerns with FIBA regarding these very disturbing allegations,” Mike Bass, a spokesman for both leagues, said in a statement on Thursday.

The I.O.C. instructs world sports federations like FIBA how to identify and fight against abusive behavior. In turn, the international federations are supposed to educate and hold to account national federations. But often these international and national governing bodies operate with little oversight. Many female athletes in Mali and elsewhere say they are afraid to speak up because it is those with the power and responsibility to protect them — federation officials, coaches, team doctors — who are committing abuses or trying to keep them hidden.

“Those who are investigating, they’re pulling up the drawbridge to say, ‘We’ve got to protect the institution.’ No, you need to protect who’s been harmed,” said Mary Harvey, the chief executive of the Swiss-based Centre for Sport and Human Rights. Harvey was a World Cup and Olympic champion goalkeeper for the United States women’s national soccer team in the 1990s.

Given the American influence on international basketball at the N.B.A., W.N.B.A. and collegiate levels, Niang does not have the same power or visibility as the president of FIFA, soccer’s governing body, or of World Athletics, track and field’s governing body. But he has held a number of influential positions in Mali inside and outside of sport, including as an executive with Mali’s Bank of Development and with oil companies, according to his FIBA bio.

As president of FIBA, he organizes the men’s and women’s Olympic basketball tournaments and the basketball World Cup; presides over 213 national federations; oversees the sport’s international rules; and collaborates with the N.B.A., most recently on creating the Basketball Africa League.

Niang did bar for life a vice president of Mali’s basketball federation accused of sexually abusing female players in 2003 or 2004, said Thiam, the former league president. But by 2014 the official had regained a prominent position in the Mali federation, according to news accounts. Niang was no longer president of Mali’s basketball federation or its sports minister at the time and was not responsible for reinstating the official. That year, Niang became vice president of FIBA and president of its African regional governing body.

“He could have spoken out but he didn’t say anything,” Thiam said. “If you don’t say something, that’s a problem.”

On Sunday, the reinstated official was suspended by FIBA, which did not state the reason.

Djibo, the activist and former player, said that Sissoko, Niang’s friend and the former women’s national coach, could be charming but was “obsessed by sex.” When she and other players rebuffed his advances, Djibo said, they were kept out of games and competitions. Such pressure, she said, “has consequences on your life, studies and game.”

But Sissoko does not appear to have been disciplined until Niang was no longer president of the Mali basketball federation or the country’s sports minister.

Jose Ruiz, a Frenchman who coached Mali’s senior women’s national team to the African basketball championship in 2007 and in the 2008 Olympics, said he replaced Sissoko for the 2013 African championships after two players complained to the Mali sports ministry about Sissoko’s behavior.

Sissoko, who is in his 50s, no longer coaches Mali’s junior or senior national teams. Still, he remained close enough to Niang to accompany him to a news conference when Niang announced his candidacy for FIBA’s presidency in 2019, according to news accounts.

Ruiz declined to criticize Niang, who hired him as Mali’s national coach. But he acknowledged that Niang and Sissoko were close and said the abuse of female players was “a big problem.”

Mali participated in the women’s basketball tournament at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. And it has since become Africa’s dominant youth hoops power. Girls and young women in Mali, Djibo said, view basketball as a “way out of misery” in a country that, in 2019, ranked 158th out of 162 nations in terms of gender inequality, according to the United Nations Development Program.

In Mali, which has faced bloody political and security crises since 2012 and underwent two military coups in the last year, sexual violence against women is widespread. By various estimates, half to three-quarters or more of women there have experienced rape and sex slavery, and forced marriage and genital mutilation are customary.

ImageProtesters demonstrated against violence toward women in Bamako, Mali last year.
Protesters demonstrated against violence toward women in Bamako, Mali last year.Credit…Michele Cattani/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Mali has won the Under-18 African women’s championship seven times. And, under Bamba’s coaching at the 2019 U-19 World Cup, it became the first African nation to reach the quarterfinals. But membership on Mali’s women’s youth national team often comes with an abusive and degrading cost, according to current and former players and parents.

A 16-year-old player told The Times that Bamba sexually assaulted her at the 2020 U-18 African championships held last December in Egypt. While the team trained in Mali before the tournament, the player said, Bamba threatened to expel her from the team when she refused to join him in the shower or in his bed. But during the tournament, she said, Bamba entered her hotel room one night at 2 a.m., forced her to touch him then touched her breasts and tried to reach beneath her underwear. She said she fled when a teammate knocked on the door.

The player’s father confirmed his daughter’s description of the assault to The Times and to Human Rights Watch. The father said that his daughter quit playing basketball, having grown traumatized and withdrawn.

An 18-year-old player told The Times that Bamba assaulted her when she was 16 at the 2019 U-19 Women’s World Cup held in Thailand. He called four young players to his hotel one by one, she said, ostensibly to give them advice about their careers. Instead, the teenager said, Bamba told her that if she agreed to have a relationship with him, he would supply her with basketball sneakers and equipment like shirts. He began touching her breasts, she said, and she protested and left the room.

Afterward, the teenager said, she was initially left off Mali’s team for the 2020 U-18 African championships. When she and other players complained to a female coach and federation officials about Bamba’s behavior, the player said, Bamba threatened them, saying he had the power to have them and their parents jailed.

Eventually, the teenager said, Harouna Maiga, the president of Mali’s basketball federation, intervened and the player was named to the squad for the 2020 African championships. But, the player said, “We were pressured by the federation not to talk about Bamba.”

After the U-18 African championships last December, a text message sent from the player to Maiga, and viewed by The Times, reiterated the player’s concerns about Bamba, referenced an earlier meeting with Maiga on the subject and suggested she was no longer willing to keep silent. “I’m stopping it now,” the player wrote.

Maiga did not respond to requests for comment.

Bamba now seems unlikely to coach Mali at the women’s U-19 World Cup in Hungary in August. And Niang’s presence at the Tokyo Olympics is also now uncertain.

If Niang ignored the abuse of female players, he should be “thrown out of the sport for life,” said Harvey, of the Centre for Sport and Human Rights. “Zero tolerance means zero tolerance. If you knew about it, you had an obligation to report it and to do something about it.”

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