Balancing doing what you love in the face of something dangerous requires courage. Even more courage, one can argue, is required to stand up to your employers and peers when it comes to voicing your concerns in an attempt to make that aforementioned dangerous scenario a little more safe.
Brooklyn Nets standout and NBPA vice president Kyrie Irving reportedly hosted approximately 200 of his peers on a Zoom call Friday night to express his opinions about the league taking over some property at Disney for a bubble league to wrap out its season. While he was among the most prominent voices against this arrangement, Irving was ruled out for the rest of the season in March following shoulder surgery, and he will not take the floor in Orlando.
Among a number of lines Irving apparently said on the call, the quote that flew around NBA Twitter was Irving’s declaration that he “wasn’t with the systemic racism and the bullsh*t.” Irving is of the belief that playing NBA games would drown out the voices in American streets crying for social reforms.
While he’s been the person making headlines given his superstar stature, Irving’s quotes aren’t the only ones we should pay attention to.
It helps to establish that Friday’s Zoom call was a union meeting where members could do the thing they pay into the union to do: weigh in on matters that affect them. If there was any appropriate forum for Kyrie to voice his issues, it was then. If one of the VPs of the union either didn’t voice his concerns nor those who voted him there, he’d be failing the rest of the players.
What also matters is that Kyrie doesn’t appear to be alone when it comes to the idea that the NBA shouldn’t come back and that games are a distraction to the Black Lives Matter movement is a real one amongst players, and it should not only be listened to, but also be addressed. Lakers guard Avery Bradley reportedly called on his fellow players to “play chess, not checkers” in approaching all of this. Lou Williams tweeted that he believes basketball is a distraction right now, even if he would play if there was a game scheduled for tomorrow. Dwight Howard, who knows first-hand about the horrors of COVID-19, reportedly said on the call that he thinks players should use this moment to, according to Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports, “take a stand and to use their collective power to implement change in the justice system and how police treat people of color instead of playing.”
Beyond the very valid questions of how restarting the league would impact the effectiveness of player activism are the legitimate concerns over how safe the bubble would be. A high-ranking NBA executive admitted to NBC Sports’ Tom Habestroh that Orlando “isn’t a bubble, it’s a mesh hat.” J.J. Redick, along with a few other players in his replies, voiced concerns over this. If the NBA and Disney haven’t functionally figured out a way to keep staff safe, why would any player put their career in the hands of rushed plans to save what little basketball revenue they can?
An added wrinkle to the location issue is that Florida is setting record numbers in terms of positive tests for COVID. More than 3,000 people tested positive over the weekend in the same state that will host these playoffs. Even if Disney happens to be the insulated place in Florida, all it takes is one positive test to derail the best of plans.
Even with rosters expanding to 17 to work around a positive COVID test, that margin of error might not be enough to avoid potentially sidelining an entire team. If that happens, what’s the contingency? Would teams be forced to forfeit depending on how many tested positive? Would players hide COVID signs in order to potentially win a championship?
If younger players are reaching out to NBPA officials about insurance just in case something bad happens during a pandemic — which, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN, is happening — there’s a problem with the plan. These younger guys should be focused far more on getting better in the gym, not having those worst-case scenarios possibly floating in their heads. This does not even consider the fact that there is still no data about the long-term effects of catching COVID-19. Catching COVID could be a death sentence to the career of an NBA player, because even if they survive, it is unclear what this does to a person’s body, which shouldn’t be lost on anyone.
Donovan Mitchell has even reportedly voiced his concerns about soft tissue injuries after such a long layoff from actual basketball activities. Mitchell’s point makes a ton of sense considering that we’ve seen such injuries in the Bundesliga with younger guys like Borussia Dortmund’s Gio Reyna, who hurt himself warming up for his first match back. Mitchell can earn a max-extension in the offseason, would it be worth it to him to go down to Orlando and play in a sequestered tournament that he’s likely not able to win?
Disagreeing with Irving is fine, and those arguments and discussions are playing out within the confines of the players union as well. LeBron James believes they can continue having an impact on the world while playing basketball and using that platform to amplify the message as well. There are also significant short and long-term financial implications for players keeping the NBA from returning and impacting revenue from this season and beyond, as revenue tied to the restart is critical for the league moving forward without the salary cap cratering. As Austin Rivers said in response to Irving. he believes playing and receiving those paychecks to financially support the Black Lives Matter movement is an important part of how NBA players create change. There are quite literally millions of reasons for players to play, but also some very legitimate cases to be made for them not to and you can find those directly facing those questions on both sides of the coin.
As such, all of this requires a nuanced discussion many in the sports field aren’t equipped to handle, and as such the discourse around it all has been nauseating at best. Add in that it’s Irving, who leads the NBA in galaxy brain jokes at his expense thanks to previous flat earth commentary, leading the charge, and people are so much quicker to shout him down. However, dismissing Irving and others outright for voicing their concerns would be wrong, as there are legitimate reasons to worry about a restart, both from how it impacts the effectiveness of player activism to the very real health concerns that are yet to be fully sorted.