Lost in the NBA’s latest return-to-play drama: Kyrie is right

Forget, for a moment, what you might think of Kyrie Irving, the emerging face of a faction of NBA players expressing anxieties over the return of the season. Instead, take Friday night’s Zoom conference call, featuring over 80 players, for what it was: not a last-second buzzer-beating attempt, but a reasonably timed airing of legitimate grievances that included players and their representatives from the National Basketball Players Association.

Irving’s personal opinion, likely informed by his multi-million dollar salary and an injury that will keep him out of play in the event that the season resumes, likely differs from many of the players on the call. Regardless, bringing them together to converse is his job. 

According to Yahoo Sports’ Chris Haynes, NBA players discussed the pros and cons of returning to play in Orlando, Florida, especially as it pertains to “combating systemic racism, investing in black communities and sticking together through this process.” The concerns compound and interweave, ranging from health to money to personal freedom to social activism.

At 2 p.m. EST on June 4, the NBA and its Board of Governors approved a 22-team return-to-play scenario. Before that point, several NBA players were unsure of its details. The NBPA approved the plan just over 24 hours later. A week later, the first rumblings of anxiety over restarting the season after the COVID-19 pandemic shut it down 93 days ago are emerging. 

Kyrie Irving is giving the players a voice. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
Kyrie Irving is giving the players a voice. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

The players union has some housekeeping to do, namely to answer the questions of why its board unanimously approved a return-to-play scenario when a reasonable faction of players felt unheard and unrepresented, and why the members of a supposedly well-oiled organization that has projected an image of openness and functionality didn’t feel like they could speak up. According to Haynes, Orlando Magic center Mo Bamba confided on the Zoom call that young players are reluctant to contradict the opinions and desires of superstars. Even the structures that were built to speak truth to it can be distorted by power.

Safety protocol has yet to be finalized, which begs the biggest question of all: How, in good conscience, can an organization ask its employees to return to work in the midst of a pandemic before the rules intended to keep them safe are set? 

Well, they haven’t. Yet.

When the NBPA approved the NBA’s plan, we took it for granted that the season was a go. But let’s take a look at the fine print. Here’s the statement the NBPA released on its website on June 5:

“The Board of Player Representatives of the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) has approved further negotiations with the NBA on a 22-team return to play scenario to restart the 2019-20 NBA season. Various details remain to be negotiated and the acceptance of the scenario would still require that all parties reach agreement on all issues relevant to resuming play.”

The NBPA didn’t approve a season. It approved a scenario. In the meantime, the NBA and the players who would like to trudge ahead with the season took a PR victory lap before earning it. Friday’s Zoom meeting was a reminder that you should never trot out the yellow championship rope until the game’s been won.

Consider all that’s been finalized before safety protocol: exhibition matches, roster sizes, access to golf courses; the time, location, format of games. If you’re an NBA player in the dark, why wouldn’t you be raising your hand wondering who’s watching out for your health and whether the continuation of the season is at all a worthwhile exercise?

Considering the lack of effort to temper the public’s enthusiasm about the season returning, one wonders if the framing was deliberate. The approval of the return-to-play scenario created so much optimism that legitimate concerns about playing — whether they are rooted in safety or social justice — have become framed as last-second heaves by disorganized late-comers.

In any event, it’s not too late for players to speak up about whatever it is that bothers them about a return to play. In fact, this is their allotted time. The logistics of the bubble, its malleability and the players’ maneuverability were always next on the docket. Irving is not some interloper sneaking into the proceedings to wreak havoc before the die is cast. He’s an NBPA vice president, making an effort to hear the concerns of those he is trying to represent. 

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