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NBA Restart Plan has Plenty of Gray Areas

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Negotiations over how, or whether, to restart the season exposes the best and worst of pro sports.

NBA: Brooklyn Nets at Detroit Pistons Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

The NBA is set to resume in late July with a 22-team finish to the 2019-20 regular season, plus a play-in tournament, plus the 2020 NBA Playoffs.

That plan neither disturbs nor pleases everyone. Over the last two weeks, I’ve gotten a dozen or so questions on its suitability. In the last week alone, I’ve received half a dozen questions or comments about dissension within the ranks of NBA players. Kyrie Irving is advocating for players to sit out, or at least put the brakes on and concentrate on what’s important. Ed Davis is claiming that’s easy for Kyrie to say, but not so for everyone. Several of Irving’s colleagues assert they can do more for social justice advocacy by playing than by boycotting. Damian Lillard admits he’s concerned about many things, but is also willing to take the risk of a restart. Some players are ready to go right now, others are disappointed that they weren’t adequately polled on the matter before the restart was announced.

It seems like kind of a mess. In some ways, it is! Rather than cite individual questions about the process, I’ll pull together some thoughts on the big picture and what seems most important about it.

On the Restart Format

I’ve already gone on record saying I think the league should have just started the playoffs with the standings as-is: 16 teams playing an abbreviated schedule. Assuming they were going to call together multiple teams, that cut-off line and level of participation made the most sense for health concerns and basketball integrity.

Instead the NBA went with 22 teams, regular season matchups, scheduling and formatting changes to the conference seeding race, and presumably a full slate of playoffs games.

For those asking if I like it, I don’t. The motivations are financial more than competitive. The compromises exist to justify broader participation and more games, not consistency or integrity of the sport. Teams within four games of the 8th seed get to play-in for the playoffs? Where’s the precedent for that? There are three potential 8th-seed challengers in the West but only one in the East? Where did that come from? Why make the gap four games and not five or three? Why make ties broken by record prior to the restart? Will the remaining schedules be balanced between all the competitors? We don’t have great answers for any of these questions other than, “Because that’s what we’re doing.”

The process will be what it will be. I guess if everybody agrees to it, we can make an argument that it’s fair enough. They could have done worse. My objection is health-related as much as anything. With that many franchises in attendance, the “bubble” will be huge. The support staff needed to sustain it will be equally large. That makes the campus permeable, thus less healthy. I preferred methods that would keep the footprint small at any given time.

On Forcing Players to Play

Participant choice is critical to the process. I was relieved to see players given the option of opting out. I’m not crazy about them forfeiting their salary for doing so. Players with health concerns shouldn’t have to choose between life and compensation. That said, with a maximum of 9% of their salary in question, most players should be able to maintain financial stability even if opting out. It’s not a perfect plan, but it’ll do.

I am wholly against forcing players to participate in the restart. I got a couple of emails along the lines of, “These guys are being paid millions of dollars, so they should just suck it up and play.” The pay estimates are accurate. The conclusions, not so much.

When the environment that governs a contract changes, so do the consequences of that contract. There’s a huge difference between, “I’m going to pay you X amount of dollars to do this thing” and, “I’m going to pay you X amount of dollars, but you or your family members could die or have health repercussions for life.” I’m not saying that signing is right or wrong either way. People take jobs that put them at risk all the time, and for far less money than NBA players make. I am saying that the person signing the contract needs to be aware of those risks before ink goes on paper. These considerations would cause any reasonable person a moment of pause. They need to know what they’re signing up for before they commit.

If an employee only finds out about the risks of the position afterwards, the contract should not be enforceable in the same way. They need a chance to re-make that decision with the new information. They’re free to do what they wish with it. They might shrug and continue onward. They might quit entirely. Whatever the outcome, they still need the chance to make that choice with accurate information in front of them.

The opt-out for Orlando does give players a chance to re-make their decision with new information. There’s a penalty for walking away, but it’s not career-ending. Good enough.

I do still worry about players on the bubble who feel like they have to play in order to gain or maintain a position in the league. That’s one of the icky ethical gray areas of the process, but I don’t see a way to resolve it in the current system.

On Union Dissension

Many questions about the restart have been variations on, “Don’t you agree with Player X? He clearly has the right point of view.” The thing is, everybody is picking a different Player X.

That’s part of the beauty of this process. Players ARE free to prioritize things differently, to disagree with each other, and support their opinions publicly. None of them are completely right. They’re just emphasizing different things.

This is a good reminder that players are human beings. Far too often we talk about them as a monolithic group, then attribute motives to the group that may or may not exist among its members. Real people play this game. Real life is messy and complex. We should acknowledge those truths and allow NBA players to be who they are.

One of the things that bugged me when doing our recent Top 100 Trail Blazers list was re-reading how Bill Walton was treated during his injury-prone seasons in Portland. It’s likely that neither Walton nor Portland’s medical staff were to blame for his foot problems. His feet just weren’t constructed for long-term, professional basketball play. Still, in the midst of his chronic injuries, Walton was described as a malcontent, lazy, greedy, and unfaithful.

The people applying these labels weren’t evil. They weren’t even particularly malicious. They were just describing the situation as they saw it, from a detached perspective, depersonalizing the star center into a “player” and then claiming certain characteristics typified all players, of which Walton was an example.

Whatever else Walton was, he wasn’t those things. He was actually one of the most competitive, talented, and in some ways naive players in the game.

Truth gets bent when we forget players are human beings, when we forbid them from deviating from our detached, utilitarian perspective of them. Human beings get to disagree. So do NBA players.

On Union Process

A couple of people wrote in about the NBA Players Union process, typifying it as odd compared to their own experience. In particular, they wanted to know why a comparatively small union (450-odd participants) with an incredibly high salary pool couldn’t devise a method to poll all its members about the restart...a fairly easy process in this technological time.

I am not speaking with inside knowledge or as any particular expertise here. I maintain what I just said about players and perspectives being appropriately diverse. I do not want to attribute a monolithic motive to people who might not possess it.

That said, the NBA union process probably reveals biases, and maybe another one of those uncomfortable gray areas in the process.

The union exists to collectively bargain for its players, to protect their rights and aims. Having just admitted that those players are not united in motive or goal, which ones get protected?

Professional sports is about as far from a democracy as you can get. Fans don’t buy tickets to see Random NBA Players 1-5, they buy tickets to see LeBron James face Giannis Antetokounmpo. Leverage, pay, and influence within NBA ranks all reflect that reality.

I have no doubt that the players’ union could poll their entire membership fairly easily. Would they want to create a system where a random guard on a two-year, non-guaranteed contract had equal say with LeBron, Kevin Durant, and company? I suspect they’d argue that the players with the most at stake—and who carry the heaviest load generating income and representing the league—should have the most input.

Again, those players aren’t required to look at things the same way. One might want to play because he has 10 million real dollars at stake this summer. Another might not want to play because he didn’t want to jeopardize future earning power by contracting the virus now. Either way, I’m guessing the opinion of the heavy hitters carries just as much weight in union ranks as it does in the typical locker room.

This could be a blessing. Portland fans wouldn’t want Lillard’s opinion to matter 1/5 as much as the 8th-12th players in Charlotte. It could also be a curse. Star players are being compensated handsomely for their career choices. Having other players take the exact same risks for much less reward as they’re pulled in the undertow of a de facto plutocracy isn’t fair or satisfying.

There’s also a question of how much votes would matter. The issue at hand is, for the most part, financial. The league and its teams have signed contracts with broadcasters and advertisers. If games aren’t played, the league doesn’t get its money. Neither will the players. Scrambling to avoid financial disaster doesn’t leave much room for a party vote. Either they play or they don’t. If they don’t, they’re going to have a much longer battle over how to renegotiate a Collective Bargaining Agreement that has become obsolete in the COVID environment. If there’s any way to avoid that, they’re going to try...no matter what the 11th player on Atlanta’s roster says.

I’m assuming that the union is working their way through these gray areas while trying to keep their eyes on the prize. It can’t be an easy road. I’m also assuming that they’re not going to come to a strong enough consensus on any objections that would prevent them from playing in July and August. They’ll probably stand firm on a few key issues, negotiate a few others, then suit up.

Conclusion

Is this the right process? Probably not. The swamp gets pretty murky at some spots. But I’m struggling to find any solution that doesn’t invoke similar issues. The sinkholes are systemic. They’ve been brought out by the COVID-19 hiatus, but they weren’t caused by it.

In the end, we’re going to need to hope that all participants have some sort of agency in the process (even if it’s just the personal choice not to participate), that any consequences that come from playing (or not) are small, and most of all that everyone involved tries to do the best thing and ends up safer for it.

Thanks for all your questions! Keep them coming to blazersub@gmail.com!

—Dave (blazersub@gmail.com / @DaveDeckard / @blazersedge)