The plan, in which 22 teams would resume play July 30 for eight regular season games before the playoffs begin, would require players to live at a controlled, single-site campus and play in empty gyms at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Disney World near Orlando. In an interview for ESPN’s “The Return of Sports” special Monday night, Silver said players who were uncomfortable with the plan and unwilling to compete would not be punished.
“[The campus] may not be for everyone,” Silver said. “It will entail enormous sacrifice on behalf of those players and for everyone involved — the coaches, the referees. Listen, it’s not an ideal situation. We’re trying to find a way to our normal in the middle of a pandemic and a recession, or worse, with 40 million unemployed and now with enormous social unrest in the country. As we work through these issues, I understand that for some players, this is not for them. It may be for family reasons, health reasons, or it may be that they feel that their time is best spent elsewhere. My sense is we’re going to be able to work through most of those issues over the next few weeks.”
It remains unclear what percentage of the NBPA’s members are seriously contemplating staying home. However, Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving and Los Angeles Lakers center Dwight Howard, among others, have expressed opposition to a return because sports would be a “distraction” from the protests. Others have raised questions about the risk of exposure to the coronavirus after at least 10 players tested positive in March. Still others have doubts about the campus setup, which would keep players confined from the outside world for an extended period.
While the NBA has yet to release its full health and safety protocols, Silver noted that players would be subjected to daily coronavirus tests and that any positive test would lead to an isolation of the patient and a contact tracing procedure aimed at slowing a wider spread. He added that players would be encouraged to maintain social distancing and wear masks, except when necessary for game play, and that Disney employees would be kept out of the players’ direct vicinity because the campus would have “varying layers of protection.”
Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard also appeared on the ESPN special; he voiced concerns about racial injustice shared by Irving and Howard while noting there is a financial argument for players to compete.
“Our league is made up of so many African Americans. A lot of our hearts are with our people,” Lillard said. “Our minds are with our people. We feel we should be a part of that fight. I think that’s what you’re hearing a lot of guys saying. Maybe we should be focused on that instead of worrying about jumping into the season. On the other hand — I can only speak for myself — we are the financial support for our families and a lot of our communities. We bring a lot of that financial responsibility to support black communities and businesses.”
Ultimately, Lillard said he wasn’t fully comfortable from a health standpoint but said it was “a risk I’m willing to take” because “this is what we do. This is our job. This is how we take care of our families. It’s my way of providing for communities.”
Silver sought to extend an olive branch to those weighing the protest issue, arguing, “The world’s attention will be on Orlando,” meaning the games would provide a greater stage for players seeking to enact change. The NBA could bring in speakers to address the issue with the players, he continued, and the concentration of players and media members at a single location could facilitate a collective and extended response.
“The statements have been issued, the foundations have been announced, contributions [have been made],” Silver said. “I think there’s an expectation that there’s more that this league can do. Part of it is going to require a fair amount of listening, something we’ve been doing already, and then engaging on very deliberate behavior together with the players. How can we use our larger platform, together with our players, to effect change? There’s an appropriate role for protests. There’s an appropriate role for those who choose not to engage in the game of basketball down in Florida.”
Like with other American professional leagues, the NBA’s financial outlook has been severely compromised by the pandemic, which made it impossible to play games in front of thousands of spectators. Silver said the Orlando plan will carry an “enormous expense” and that “the incremental difference between playing and not playing” this summer “isn’t nearly as great as people think.” Instead, he argued that the NBA felt “an obligation to try this” rather than “to stay on the sidelines” indefinitely.
“The alternative is, in essence, to give in to this virus,” he said. “For us, we feel this is what we do. We put on NBA basketball. For the country, it will be a respite from enormous difficulties people are dealing with.”
Silver has kept a low profile throughout the NBA’s shutdown, conducting one news conference in April but otherwise sticking to interviews with the league’s television partners.