It’s too dramatic a response to consider the NBA in turmoil. The league and its many factions of players are in conversation. Finally. Revisiting the terms of the decision to play, amid both the novel coronavirus pandemic and international racial unrest, is necessary as the world alternates between an unprecedented pause and an unfathomable movement. Nothing is happening, and then everything is happening. The pandemic has created a social and economic stall; this battle in the fight against police brutality and systemic racism has mobilized with staggering speed.
These are strange times to live through and, in the moment, impossible times to fully grasp. It would be incongruous for the NBA to glide back into relevance. And now, with a coalition of players questioning the agreed-upon decision between union leaders and the league to resume in a Disney bubble near Orlando, it’s simply time for the NBA to talk, understand and grow in a manner consistent with the rest of America’s awakening.
Some of the messengers are polarizing, particularly Irving and Dwight Howard. But the message is worthy of deeper consideration. It is complicated and multifaceted, involving concerns about social justice, health and safety, extra protection against injury risk for upcoming free agents, the restrictions of having to live in a confined area for an extended period, and the need for even more concrete plans that make clear the value of participation. But the whole conflict can be whittled down to one word: representation.
That’s pretty wild when you think about it. In many ways, diversity is a great NBA strength. It is a predominantly African American league given significant credit — sometimes too much — for being the most progressive sports operation in the United States. Yet at the heart of this disagreement is the belief of some players that Chris Paul, the National Basketball Players Association president, other union leaders and some of the league’s biggest stars were too aggressive in committing to a burdensome situation without listening to more voices from the entire membership.
At the heart of this disagreement is, in essence, an issue of equality. It’s not racism, of course. But the NBA’s superstar-driven system has created a level of elitism and left a large number of players with a sense of invisibility. The superstar clique is so exclusive that Irving — a six-time all-star and one of the union’s vice presidents — can’t get in the VIP section of the club. So there are many players who feel unheard, and they are rebelling. Their willingness to speak up just might keep the NBA from inadvertently sending the wrong message when it comes back.
The return of sports cannot come across as permission to expect normalcy. That’s the fear, that fanatics will misinterpret the games — even in a diminished, crowd-less form — as evidence of the coronavirus not being as dangerous. Just as troublesome, they might consider them the perfect distraction to move past this fledgling social justice movement.
For the NBA, pushback and scrutiny of its plan are good things. Commissioner Adam Silver, who has set a new standard for thoughtfulness and good intentions in professional sports leadership, has done a solid job of leading the NBA to the verge of a worthwhile comeback. Epidemiologists and health experts have praised the thoroughness of the league’s plan. They give it as decent a chance of working as they can. But this is a mysterious virus that doctors are still learning about, and it’s impossible to declare any approach free of risk.
When it comes to racism, social justice and other issues of equality, well, there’s no vaccine to develop for immunity. It is America’s never-ending dilemma. It is the world’s never-ending dilemma. This is the moment of a lifetime, however. And the NBA, like many large corporations, has made a public declaration to strengthen its efforts in combating hatred and inequality. If the sport returns July 30, it will be its first highly publicized opportunity to act on this desire. It must get it right. It cannot allow its product to be used solely as a diversion from the bubbling movement.
To accomplish these big goals, the NBA must rally around its current difficult conversation.
Paul has a fair counterargument to the new player coalition, one that any leader of a union or active member of a task force can appreciate: Where were you when the floor was open for debate? Why weren’t you active during the process before the ultimate decision? The disengaged often don’t care until the work is done and there is something tangible to criticize. Some of that has occurred here, and during a conference call last week, several players held themselves accountable for not being more involved, people familiar with the call said. But the problem is bigger than that.
To know the NBA is to understand the power that superstars wield. It’s impressive and long-standing, and over the past 10 years they have figured out ways to flex that would widen the eyes of even Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. We like to call it the player empowerment era. But to be most truthful, it should be considered the star player empowerment era.
It’s inevitable that some of this power will be abused. It’s inevitable that selfishness will become a factor. It’s inevitable that some colleagues and even league leadership could be intimidated by these franchise players.
That’s what Los Angeles Clippers guard Patrick Beverley meant when he wrote a cryptic tweet expressing the reality that if LeBron James wants the season to resume in Disney isolation, “We all hooping.”
Two weeks before George Floyd was killed in Minnesota, Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports had a fascinating report about a superstar call that Paul arranged. It included James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis, Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook. On the call, they pledged to unite in their desire to finish the 2019-20 season. Union representatives began polling other players informally around this time, but the superstar commitment was the key. A deal was going to get done because they wanted it done.
That created the pathway for the union and owners to agree to resume the season. By the time Floyd’s May 25 death created widespread protests and greater passion for change, the current plan was formed and ratified.
So there is some unfortunate timing here. The tone of the original negotiations would have been much different if they happened after Floyd’s killing. Much of the player coalition’s hesitance about playing centers on the appropriateness of doing so in this climate. The NBA needs to develop a strong plan to prove the impact it can have during this time.
“We don’t need to say more,” Los Angeles Lakers guard Avery Bradley, a co-leader of the coalition, told ESPN. “We need to find a way to achieve more. Protesting during an anthem, wearing T-shirts is great, but we need to see real actions being put into the works.”
It’s reasonable to hold the league accountable. But it’s also vital that the players contribute more than just pressure. The NBA needs their ideas, too. The door seems open for a higher level of participation in formulating this plan. More players had better participate.
The hope is that, as the NBA works to be a responsible part of this societal awakening, it experiences an awakening as well. It will always be a star-driven league dependent on big, marketable personalities. Those stars don’t have to have a blinding effect, however.
In the middle of a spirited battle against systemic racism, it’s humbling to realize that the structure of your house is flawed. Awareness is the first step, but will the passion for improvement follow?
As individuals throughout the NBA try to inspire change, there’s no better time to revise their own product.
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