The NBA has not released a final return-to-play plan as several issues remain outstanding. The players are discussing a lot before they agree to return.
The NBA is never short of wild headlines. It is part of the drama of the league. Things go crazy and haywire all the time and virtually nothing stays behind closed doors. The league is never short of drama.
Usually, that is about behind-the-scenes egos or transactions and power plays. The NBA usually plays out like a drama.
The stakes have rarely been actually this high. And as the league weighs its return-to-play, it is dealing with some very weighty issues.
The celebration from fans when the league announced its return plan — 22 teams finishing the regular season and the Playoffs at Disney — was palpable. The league had a tangible plan for its return. The players quickly approved further negotiations.
The devil was always in the details. And while the league and players presented a somewhat united front on a return to play, there are still a lot of things to weigh.
Friday night seemed to bring some of the tension and seriousness of the moment to the front.
Kyrie Irving held a conference call with several other players to discuss some of the greater concerns — from staying at the same hotel site for months at a time to safety protocols to the perception of a largely black league cooped up in one spot during a time of civil unrest over racial justice.
Irving quickly took much of the blame on social media — and even some rush-to-print headlines in media. Already a pariah, Irving became an easy target.
But his concerns are valid. The issues he brought up with the group of players deserve debate and discussion. They at least deserve to be heard. Union leadership, or the league, should not completely wish these away.
They had a long list of concerns and the phone call seemed more like a place for discussion and venting of feelings rather than a demand on the union to take a certain action. Sam Amick of The Athletic (subscription required) had more details on the call and it seemed to be a more honest forum.
This is probably an instance where the NBA’s drama took something that leaked to its extreme rather than allowing what actually happened to sit. It was talk and not action — then again, when hasn’t talk filled pages and web browsers in the NBA world?
It is worth noting that both the union and the league seem prepared to excuse any player who is not comfortable playing.
But there are still a lot of unresolved issues when it comes to the NBA’s return. And a lot of valid concerns that Irving and the players brought up as they weigh some impossible choices.
Players want to keep leadership on social justice issues
The call that Kyrie Irving seemed to lead — and included Orlando Magic forward Al-Farouq Aminu — was a forum for players to express their concerns. And considering basketball players are some of the most accepted and visible black men in America, they are cognizant of their place in the conversation going on throughout the country.
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It seems much of the debate and discussion the players had was about how they can maintain their leadership role on this front while sequestered in Orlando.
That now may have to be part of the league’s return-to-play plan. At least the NBA has seemed willing to partner on initiatives on this front.
How that looks will take some creativity. But Irving is right that there are bigger things working in the world right now than playing basketball. And there is fair concern that bringing sports back into the picture will distract people from the social justice changes this country needs.
For sure, this will likely be a priority for the league when it returns. It seems the players are not going to let this go.
Health concerns still present
But the biggest concern for players is about their health and safety from the coronavirus, the very thing that put the season on hold and upended the world, to begin with.
The reality is that to come back and play in any way requires some measure of risk. The league is asking its players to risk their health by leaving their home and traveling to a new site where there is potential exposure to the virus — and recently a spike in new positive tests.
The league is trying to mitigate those risks for sure, but there is no guarantee of their safety. And one of the stories that came out Friday from Tom Haberstroh of NBC Sports that Disney may not require its workers to remain in the bubble.
That report alone created some backlash among players — even Magic forward Evan Fournier:
Keith Smith of Yahoo! Sports, an Orlando resident and former Disney employee, noted that Disney is still working out its protocols with the league and will have to present those to its union before approval.
Quite simply, there are a lot of moving parts and the league is trying to get things right in an unprecedented situation.
To that end, everyone is right to be concerned. And every player has a right to raise their voice and let that be known.
Maintaining a united front
The group still seemed to stress that players need to present a united front. Whatever decision the NBPA comes up with, even they would need to back it. And NBPA president Chris Paul was among the players on the call discussing some of these issues.
That is part of what is going on too. The rank-and-file has largely stood behind leadership, but there is a lot to weigh here very clearly.
Mohamed Bamba reportedly expressed this too on the call according to Chris Haynes of Yahoo! Sports, telling players that younger players felt a little hesitant to speak out for their interests especially against star players with a lot more influence.
These are part of the internal discussions and competing interests of a group of 450 men. There is a lot on the line for a lot of players. And a lot that still feels unknown. The union has to do a better job of educating its members of what is going on.
This call seemed to give some of them a voice. Acknowledging that voice should get the union closer to a final proposal.
But behind every decision and everything the players are weighing right now is the reality that not finishing the season would cost the league billions of dollars. Half of which goes to the players.
Further, the reality might be that canceling this season could lead to the league invoking the force majeure clause of the collective bargaining agreement and starting completely from scratch to deal with this new economic reality.
The players have an interest in playing too. But like everything else, it is a balance.
Waiting for a solution
Despite all these concerns and everything else going on, at the end of the day, some players just want to play.
It is easy to get overwhelmed with all the information out there. Things are not as simple as rolling the ball out and playing.
The league wants to keep players safe from the virus. But it also wants to respect player autonomy and partner with them in social justice causes (it would appear, at least).
All these debates are colliding in this uncertain time. And nobody has answers.
Just like how difficult it was to put together a fair and balanced return-to-play plan that needed everyone’s input and ideas, this challenge too will require a creative solution. There is no silver bullet.
There is no way to return to play and give players the freedom to move outside the campus site. Not without risking inviting the virus in, defeating the purpose of going to Disney to begin with.
With that, there is no avoiding keeping players sequestered in a single location, taking them away from the social causes they have been championing the last few weeks. These issues are personal for a lot of players in the league and that deserves respect and acknowledgment.
Every concern at this point deserves recognition.
And that is what the NBA players appear to be doing. They appear to be trying to listen to issues and concerns their teammates have right now. It is a chance for the union to grow — it has notoriously been fractured in the past but has been largely united since Chris Paul took over leadership.
Kyrie Irving is not a villain here at all. He is not torpedoing the season’s restart (Irving has less of a stake because he is injured and will not be playing in Disney). He is raising valid concerns about the NBA’s place in the world and how they can ultimately keep players safe.
These are questions the NBPA should raise and discuss among each other and bring up to the league for final resolution.
They all deserve discussion.