Saturday, September 19, 2020

Kyrie Irving-led call appears to put NBA return plan in jeopardy amid COVID-19 and social unrest

When the National Basketball Players Association voted to approve Adam Silver’s plan to finish the 2019-20 season by sending 22 teams to a Disney World bubble site in Orlando, not everyone got a say in that process. The NBPA is comprised of nine executive committee members, led by president Chris Paul, and one player representative from each of the 30 teams.

In theory, those 30 player reps would cast their vote after consulting with each of their teammates, so as to represent at least the majority of their voices and ultimate wishes, but that’s not always how it works, particularly during this ongoing NBA hiatus when players are spread out all over the world.

So here we are with this plan to drop 22 teams into a city and county where coronavirus cases are reportedly surging again. This is not a normal NBPA matter where a few can speak for the whole. The decision to enter yourself into a confined bubble site and play potentially eight weeks of basketball games in the middle of a pandemic is to assume a very obvious personal risk, and per Yahoo’s Chris Haynes, a significant number of players are not happy they didn’t get to vote on the return for themselves.

According to Haynes, “several players have been reluctant” to speak up about not wanting to play under these conditions for fear of going against the group of superstars who have been vocal about wanting to return. In mid-May, Chris Paul organized a call that included LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook, and that call resulted in a collective commitment to continuing the season once it was deemed safe.

Those are some pretty powerful voices.

But again, that was a month ago, and conditions are changing — not just in terms of rising COVID-19 cases, but also as the fight for racial equality continues to play out all over the world in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police. From Haynes:

The unease about relocating to a quarantined campus during the COVID-19 pandemic was already viewed as hazardous and unnecessary to many players. But because of the George Floyd tragedy and the powerful movement for racial justice that’s sweeping the nation, some players believe it’s bad optics for a league comprised predominantly of black men to be sequestered in one location for up to three months merely to entertain the masses and ease the league’s economic burden, sources said.

“What message are we sending by agreeing to this during this time?” a black player told Yahoo Sports. “We’re out here marching and protesting, and yet we all leave our families in these scary times and gather to perform at a place where the owners won’t be at? What type of sense does that make? We’ll be going backwards. That place isn’t that magical.”

You start to add all this up, and it begs the question whether the NBA’s plan to return to action will actually come to fruition. A lot can change by the end of July. A lot is already changing. Pacers guard Malcolm Brogdon, who serves as a vice president on the NBPA executive committee, recently said on the JJ Redick podcast that he’s talked to “several” players who are seriously considering opting out of Orlando.

That sentiment was amplified Friday night, when Kyrie Irving led a call that included 80-plus NBA and WNBA players and provided a platform for everyone to voice their concerns regarding the plan to return to action amid such health and social unrest, according to Shams Charania of The Athletic. From Charania:

Sources tell The Athletic that a group consisting of 80-plus players — including NBPA Vice President Kyrie Irving, NBPA president Chris Paul, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard, Donovan Mitchell and Avery Bradley — discussed finding unity and a way to attack a cause amid the nationwide unrest stemming from racial injustice, systematic racism and police brutality as well as what the world continues to face during the coronavirus pandemic.

Bradley, the Lakers guard, was the second person to speak on the call behind Irving and was vocal throughout, urging players to take a stand and utilize this moment to “play chess, not checkers,” those sources said.

“I don’t support going into Orlando,” Irving told the players. “I’m not with the systematic racism and the bullshit. … Something smells a little fishy. Whether we want to admit it or not, we are targeted as black men every day we wake up.”

Charania went on to report a number of other players who were on the call and the messages a few of them delivered.

Among the players on the call Friday: Indiana’s Malcolm Brogdon, Portland’s C.J. McCollum, Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid, Indiana’s Justin Holiday, San Antonio’s Rudy Gay, Brooklyn’s Spencer Dinwiddie, Sacramento’s Harrison Barnes, Orlando’s Al-Farouq Aminu, Philadelphia’s Tobias Harris, Toronto’s Kyle Lowry, Utah’s Mike Conley Jr., Portland’s Zach Collins and Indiana’s Myles Turner. Former NBA player and NBPA executive Roger Mason Jr. was also on the call, sources said.

— Carmelo Anthony stressed unity, having a sole message and allowing the young players in the NBA a voice. At one point, Anthony suggested having all 80 players on the call donating $25,000 to a cause that they wanted.

—Donovan Mitchell expressed concerns about playing due to “being behind the 8-ball” having not played five-on-five and being thrust into a competitive environment and eight-game regular season. “We’re taking a big (injury) risk,” Mitchell said. Mitchell is up for a maximum contract extension this summer.

— C.J. McCollum stated that players must be prepared for the financial dip if they choose not to play, and owners completely ripping apart the collective bargaining agreement.

— Dwight Howard stressed to players that playing in Orlando will become a distraction from the issues the country is facing, and that they need to unify and use this moment to create a change.

Yahoo’s Haynes further reported the reason Irving is not in favor of returning to play, citing his preference to instead use his time to “work on the frontlines in his community to focus on racial oppression and systemic racism.” Meanwhile, Mitchell, Anthony and Howard all “expressed their desire not to play at this juncture,” per Haynes, who also reported that McCollum voted “no” on returning to play this season.

This isn’t to say any of these guys, or anyone else not in favor of returning at the moment, can’t change their minds as fluid conditions continue to play out. Even Irving, who is going to be portrayed as an instigator by some, is being thoughtful and measured about the possibility of continuing this season even as he maintains a passionate stance about there being more important things on which to focus.

“If it’s worth the risk, then let’s go and do it,” Irving said on the call, per Haynes. “But if you’re not with it, it’s OK, too. We’ve got options for both ways. Let’s just come to a middle ground as a family.”

In addition to concerns about COVID-19 and the danger of potentially pushing systemic-racism conversations to the back burner as basketball would get back to forefront of the national consciousness, Bleacher Report’s Howard Beck reported Friday afternoon that there is also a growing number of players, particularly big-name players, who have such an issue with the rules of the bubble itself that they “would refuse to play” unless protocols are altered.

In other words, some players are highly concerned about the health risks of contracting and/or spreading COVID-19, yet others don’t want the bubble to be so restrictive, which makes for very little common ground in an already divisive situation. All the while, from a PR perspective, if a big group of players suddenly comes out and refuses to travel to Orlando, or if COVID-19 cases continue to rise as the country continues to lift stay-at-home orders and re-open its doors during the virus, does the NBA really want to look like it’s putting the almighty dollar ahead of a worldwide pandemic and the fight for racial equality?

When the plan to return to action in Orlando was approved, we jumped to the conclusion that the decision was final. It clearly was not. As of Friday night, all we can really say is this: Talks about resuming the season are ongoing, and more and more voices are being heard. As for whether the NBA will ultimately continue, and finish, the 2019-20 season, that is clearly still up in the air.

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