After a flurry of reports yesterday that a group of NBA players were having serious doubts about the NBA’s Restart plan, The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported that last night, Kyrie Irving led a conference call of about 80 players to discuss the situation.

It seems clear, as players begin to publicly raise their voice, that the primary concern behind these calls is not concerns over the bubble restrictions, as has been widely suggested by NBA media. While players still assuredly do have concerns over both the safety of resuming play in Orlando (while Florida currently grapples with an outbreak of the coronavirus) and the rather staggering isolation it would require, the current, larger concern articulated by several players is with regards to the Black Lives Matter movement and the obligation they feel to be leaders and activists in facilitating social change.

As Kyrie Irving, who appears to be the leader of these talks, reportedly said: “I’m willing to give up everything I have (for social reform).”

While the extent to which the season’s Restart itself is actually in jeopardy is unclear (the call only having 80 participants, including several proponents of the Restart, in a 450-player league seems to suggest there is nowhere near a majority coalition right now), the NBA needs to be attentive to the concerns of the players. Nobody has publicly announced that they intend to sit out if games resume, but some of the names that have been rumored to be members of that camp are significant ones–like Utah Jazz star Donovan Mitchell and Los Angeles Lakers role players Avery Bradley and Dwight Howard.

The leading scorer on the 4th seed in the West sitting out impacts the playoffs and would be a major story. For the Lakers, who are currently the favorites to win the championship, missing two of their top 7 rotation players could change the outcome of the season.

Players should have the individual choice not to play in Orlando if they do not wish to, and earlier reports seemed to indicate that the league, teams, and union were working together on how to facilitate such opt-outs and provide teams with replacement players. But such efforts assumed that these would be relatively few individual choices that would not have a major impact on contending teams. They also assumed that the absences would be due to concerns over the bubble, or potential injury risk incurred by players not on contenders. The narrative turns drastically when the players who sit out are an organized collective of conscientious objectors who believe that the Restart is standing in the way of social justice.

As I wrote yesterday, the players make the game. They have the power in this situation to decide what the best path forward is. Following last night’s meeting, the two competing sides to this argument were laid out in instagram comments from Clippers guard Lou Williams and former Clippers guard Austin Rivers. While it’s not clear that either is fully committed to the argument they made (for example, Lou hasn’t said that he will sit out if the season resumes), they do a good job of presenting their respective case.

Lou responded to an instagram commenter who questioned how playing would stop anyone from fighting for social justice:

we are fighting for a radical change. Sports has been a healing factor, there we agree. In this climate… it’s a distraction. I mean look at your position. You’re dying to get back in the house and drink a beer and watch us hoop opposed to being outside fighting for your equality. That’s just one aspect to look at.

In a longer comment, Austin Rivers articulated a similar position to the question posed to Lou above:

Trying to find the correlation [shrug emoji]. Us coming back would be putting money in all our (NBA players) pockets. With this money you could help out even more people and continue to give more importantly your time and energy towards the BLM movement. Which I’m 100% on board with. Because change needs to happen and injustice has been going on too long. But also….. Not to mention there are plenty of NBA players I know who need them paychecks…99% of the NBA hasn’t made the money a guy like Kyrie has. Not to mention NBA basketball is predominantly African American…and a lot of our audience is too. Us proving some entertainment and hope for kids is important. All keeping SOME kids indoors and watching basketball games on tv instead of maybe going out and getting into trouble, (do to the unfair and unequal environment a lot of African American kids are placed in) is important too. NOT saying basketball is a cure for that but basketball can maybe provide a distraction. On another note….NOt to mention the ramifications of not playing with the TV money etc. CBA etc… would really put NBA basketball behind. Possibly even canceling next year. I love Kyrie’s passion towards helping this movement. It’s admirable and inspiring. I’m with it….but in the right way and not at the cost of whole NBA and players careers. We can do both. We can play and we can help change the way black lives are lived. I think we have too! But canceling or boycotting return doesn’t do that in my opinion. Guys want to play and provide and help change!!!!

The questions raised by Williams and Rivers are both fully valid, and there’s no necessarily correct answer. There’s a sad truth to the observation from Lou, that has also been made by other players, that when games return a large portion of the media and public will focus on them to attempt to drown out calls for change. Protests will get less coverage and people will use the NBA as a distraction to avoid engaging with the troubling issues of police brutality, wealth inequality, and systemic racism that are at the forefront of our national discourse right now.

However, canceling the remainder of the season might not actually address those concerns. In recent months, it has been impossible to predict what the world will look like two weeks in advance. The reality is that while the NBA returning and functioning as a distraction that hurts the movement is possible, it is perhaps inevitable that the nation will have found another distraction by the time games are slated to begin at the end of July.

Then, there’s the money. It of course seems crass to weigh billions in sports-related profit over the lives and suffering of everyday people, but the players represent one of the most notable ways that wealth can flow into Black spaces and organizations. Collectively, NBA players were set to receive roughly $3.75 billion in salary this season before the COVID-19 pandemic made a significant impact on league revenue. ESPN’s Bobby Marks wrote that canceling the remainder of the season would cost the players roughly $1.2 billion this year alone:

As Marks also notes, and I wrote yesterday, the league would be able to void the collective bargaining agreement under the “force majeure” clause. Renegotiating in the aftermath of a major revenue shortfall and in advance of low projections for a 2020-21 season that will likely have to be played without fans, meaning no gate revenue, puts the players in a position of weakness. It is also possible that if the league fails to fulfill its obligation to its television providers, the networks could void and renegotiate their deals to carry high-profile and playoff games.

When the newest national TV deal was signed in 2014, the league’s annual revenue increased massively, from 930M/yr to $2.6B/yr. That jump is what facilitated the salary cap spike, which infamously allowed the Warriors to sign Kevin Durant but more largely resulted in bigger contracts for players around the league. The salary cap moved from $70M in 2015-16 to $94M in 2016-17, and now sits at $109M. The average team in 2019-20 was scheduled to dole out player salaries worth double the cap from 5 years ago–roughly $125M compared to a $63M cap in 2014-15.

If the national networks renegotiate to pay the league less to carry games, and individual teams face similar renegotiations with their local TV deals for failing to meet the 70-game threshold, league revenue could be majorly impacted for a decade and players could get a lower share of that revenue than their current split, which is roughly 50-50.

NBA players know how this system works. The NBPA exists for a reason, and the agents, who are typically paid a percentage of their clients’ contracts, certainly keep players advised on the machinations of revenue sharing. For someone like Kyrie Irving to claim that he’s “willing to give up everything,” he means it. Austin Rivers is right to call that commitment admirable and inspiring.

The question before NBA players is no small one: can they, as Austin said, play and help create change? Is there a way for the players to somehow play, commit large portions of the revenue to Black Lives Matter and other activist organizations, and simultaneously work to use the platform to promote those causes instead of distract from them? Or is it inevitable that having hoops on TV again will contribute to the nation turning the channel to sports and forgetting about injustice without transformative changes to racist institutions?

I don’t know the answer to those questions, but I think it’s important that the players are actively having those conversations and working together to come up with a plan. With so much of the league’s scenario still in flux, the players have an opportunity to make their voices heard and power felt in influencing the conditions under which the season will resume, or stopping its resumption altogether.

Disclosure: Beyond my interest in the league returning as a basketball and Clippers fan, I have a personal economic interest in the league returning as the owner of this website, which would have drastically increased traffic and revenue if games resumed.

Lucas Hann

Lucas Hann

Lucas has covered the Clippers since 2011, and has been credentialed by the team since 2014. He co-founded 213Hoops with Robert Flom in January 2020.  He is a graduate of Saugus High School in Santa Clarita, CA and St. John's University in Queens, NY.  He earned his MA in Communication and Rhetorical Studies from Syracuse University.