National Basketball Players Association executive director Michele Roberts said the players she represents spent the weekend discussing how they could best use “our obvious influence — either by playing or not playing — to make sure we enhance and move this movement forward” rather than distracting from it.
After nearly 100 NBA players participated in a Friday night call, in which Brooklyn Nets guard and NBPA vice president Kyrie Irving made a case against resuming the season in Orlando, Florida, in late July, Roberts said players have spent the weekend considering how the league’s return might affect the Black Lives Matter movement.
“It’s not a question of play or not play,” Roberts told ESPN. “It’s a question of, does playing again harm a movement that we absolutely, unequivocally embrace? And then whether our play can, in fact, highlight, encourage and enhance this movement.
“That’s what they’re talking about. They’re not fighting about it; they’re talking about it.”
Several players on the call Friday said they were considering sitting out the remainder of the season in order to focus on social justice issues, or because they were uncomfortable with the proposed plans to resume the season with 22 teams in a campus-like environment in Orlando, sources said.
Others argued that the NBA can bring more attention to the movement by playing and using the league’s platforms afforded them once the season resumes.
For example, Roberts has mentioned to several players that one of the most powerful examples of athletes using their platform to protest and promote social change came in 1968, when American sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised black-gloved fists while on the medal stand at the Summer Olympics.
In order to be on the podium for that iconic moment, Roberts said, both men had to run — and earn a medal in — their 200-meter race.
As such, Roberts said she has urged each player to make his own decision about whether it feels appropriate or comfortable to play, because it is such a personal decision for each player.
ESPN’s reporting with players, agents, the NBPA and league officials over the weekend found no indication that the NBA’s return is in jeopardy — or that there’s even a significant group of players ready to sit out.
There are expected to be some players who decide not to play, sources said, but so far there’s no indication that it’s enough to compromise the league’s plans to return, which have already been approved by the owners (29-1) and team representatives (28-0).
The NBA is preparing the release of two documents to teams early this week, sources said: a side letter of agreement to changes in the collective bargaining agreement to accommodate the 22-team restart to the season, and a 125-page health and safety manual detailing the step-by-step protocols from June workouts, July training camps through the regular season, and playoff games through October in Orlando.
Nearly all of the key elements to both documents have been shared with teams and reported for weeks, although the NBA and NBPA will continue negotiations on items such as insurance protections for players in Orlando and possible offseason training camp and OTAs for the eight teams left out of the restart at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World Resort, sources said.
One agreement finalized in recent days includes the NBA prorating performance bonuses and incentives using March 11 as the end date of the regular season — eliminating the eight additional seeding games in Orlando as part of the formula, sources said.
For Philadelphia 76ers All-Star Joel Embiid, it means meeting the minutes-played criteria needed to fully guarantee the final three years and nearly $95 million on his $148 million maximum contract, sources said.
Embiid signed a five-year, $148 million deal extension in 2017 that included financial protections for the Sixers had Embiid suffered career-ending injuries involving his back or feet. Those protections are moot now; Embiid has shown his durability and his All-NBA production has actually outsized his contract.
Embiid needed 1,650 minutes this season to fully guarantee the contract, but prorated over the Sixers’ 65 games that lowered the requirement to below the 1,329 minutes he had played this season.
Several players on the call Friday expressed frustration at the time it has taken to get answers on details that affect players’ financial futures, and on the specifics of how health and safety protocols will be enforced during training camp in their home markets and once teams arrive in Orlando.
Some players have privately questioned whether star players will be held to the same quarantine standards as role players, which the NBA and NBPA have insisted would be the case, sources said.
That process became cumbersome, because those protocols were being collectively bargained by a joint task force of players, union leaders and league executives, while in consultation with public health experts retained by both the league and union.
Roberts led hourlong Zoom sessions with each of the 30 teams in recent weeks that detailed elements of the bubble environment and finances surrounding a return-to-play. The calls spanned approximately two weeks, so those teams near the end of the process had more up-to-the-moment information than those at the beginning of the list.
Besides conference calls with the broader body of individual player agents, Roberts had smaller group calls with those running larger-scale agencies, representing a bigger swath of the union’s membership. Agents and the union are often aligned on issues, given both are in business to serve the players.
NBPA president Chris Paul joined Irving’s call Friday night, and he told members more than once that they were certainly free to make personal choices on playing again, but they did need to consider and understand the financial implications of staying home, sources said.
Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James was not a part of the call Friday, having previously made his position clear. According to sources with knowledge of James’ thinking, he believes he can effect social change — and amplify his impact while playing — as he did in 2014 when he called for Donald Sterling’s removal from the NBA and in 2012 when James and his teammates with the Miami Heat wore hoodies in response to the death of Trayvon Martin.
Clippers guard Patrick Beverley seemed to suggest James’ position will prevail, tweeting on Sunday that if James “said he hooping. We all hooping.”
In the NBA and NBPA agreement, players choosing not to join their teams in the bubble will not be penalized by teams, but they will lose payment on games missed — 1/92nd of the money owed them, sources said.
For players who believe they have a medical reason that elevates them into a higher-risk COVID-19 category and want to be excused with pay, the NBA and NBPA have set up an independent doctors panel to evaluate the players and make a determination, sources said.
Even if a player is pronounced healthy enough to play without a heightened risk, he is still able to stay home — only without pay, sources said.