NBA players with concerns about restarting season shouldn't be vilified

Noah Levick
NBC Sports Philadelphia

The Nets' Kyrie Irving is indisputably an eccentric figure, one who's very willing to express stances that do not align with mainstream thinking

His latest turn in the spotlight - leading a coalition of players "pursuing a further examination of the NBA's plan to restart the season in Orlando," according to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski and Malika Andrews - shouldn't be viewed as extreme. It's eminently reasonable, in fact. 

Shams Charania of The Athletic reported that Irving led a call with more than 80 players Friday night, including the Sixers' Tobias Harris and Joel Embiid. The discussion, per Charania, involved various concerns regarding the logistics of resuming the season in Orlando, a plan already approved by the NBA's Board of Governors and the National Basketball Players Association. However, "social justice reform" was the primary emphasis. 

"I don't support going into Orlando," Irving said, per Charania. "I'm not with the systematic racism and the bull----. … Something smells a little fishy. Whether we want to admit it or not, we are targeted as black men every day we wake up."

One might be tempted to label the notion of something being "a little fishy" as ludicrous, an outlandish conspiracy theory. Irving's larger point, though, should not be dismissed.

Black players comprise the majority of the NBA, and they regularly encounter implicit and explicit forms of racial discrimination. The wealth they've earned does not magically place them outside of the society in which they live. 

Now, the Black community has been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus pandemic because of this deeply embedded inequality and a present in which it remains necessary to advocate for Black lives mattering. 

"We are combating the issues that matter most: We will not accept the racial injustices that continue to be ignored in our communities," the players' coalition said in a statement released to ESPN. "We will not be kept in the dark when it comes to our health and well-being. And we will not ignore the financial motivations/expectations that have prevented us historically from making sound decisions."

For many fans, sports serve as a distraction. We can watch a game for a couple of hours, focusing on Embiid's conditioning, Matisse Thybulle's delightful defensive anticipation and other entertaining trivialities. The outside world becomes meaningless. 

Over the past three months, we've been without basketball, a sport that elicits a broad range of emotions - perhaps it makes us feel safe, energized, perplexed or joyful. Those feelings are valid, and they're difficult to explain to those who don't share a love of sports.

We've also lost a passion that can skew our perspective. The natural reaction to obsess over the league's 22-team resumption plan and to ponder questions like whether the format is advantageous for the Sixers is a good example of this phenomenon. Days before that plan was released, we'd been reading a nuanced essay by Harris on racism and police brutality, and following as Ben Simmons, Allen Iverson and prominent figures across the NBA shared their stories and opinions in the aftermath of George Floyd's death. 

On Friday, as Bleacher Report's Taylor Rooks and Yahoo Sports' Chris Haynes were reporting about the call set for that night and outlining the concerns many players had, other reports revealed further details about revised dates on the NBA's tentative calendar. This shouldn't need to be said, but the fact that the league is aiming to have its play-in tournament games on Aug. 15 and Aug. 16 is not very important in the context of players considering whether they want to play at all. 

To debate Harris' worth as a player without respecting his worth as a person would be wrong. It would be incredibly easy, too, since we've been conditioned to move on to the next story that we know how to digest, and to gloss over topics that don't directly relate to on-court action. 

Our perception of Harris has mainly been shaped by whether he's making open three-pointers and how comfortable he looks defending opposing small forwards, but he's valuable because he's a person, plain and simple - that's the essential truth. He also happens to have generously donated his time and money since arriving in Philadelphia. The players contemplating whether they should opt against playing in Disney World force us to acknowledge that basic humanity, which we neglect too often with Black athletes.

There are pragmatic arguments about why playing would actually be the best way for players to push for racial justice. If Harris decided to kneel before a game, as a hypothetical, that would be a huge deal. Millions of people would view his protest, and you couldn't look away if you wanted to watch the basketball game he was about to play in. 

Figuring out what's most efficacious, profound or ideal for the circumstances is not the responsibility of fans or sportswriters. That's a personal decision, and it's understandable that a league with about 450 players would have an array of opinions about activism. 

It also makes sense that the concept of living in a "bubble" could be divisive. Some players, Bleacher Report's Howard Beck reported, are worried about not having sufficient freedom of movement. Others may still have questions about the health and safety risks that go along with playing a sport indoors during a pandemic. Donovan Mitchell has concerns about the heightened possibility of injuries with jumping into games after such a long layoff, according to Charania. 

That the league deliberated whether it should include 20 or 22 teams before having substantive answers to relatively straightforward questions like whether coaches over 65 years old would be permitted on the bench during games is unsavory. The reports of dissenting voices and lingering worries are also far from a great look.

These voices pushing into our consciousness have no obligation to salvage money lost by owners or be touted as symbols of unity and hope.

Grappling with whether to play again this season isn't appalling, and framing a complex choice as such would be disingenuous. Commissioner Adam Silver acknowledged as much Monday on ESPN by saying the restart "may not be for everyone." Charania reported Tuesday that a player who chooses not to play will have his compensation reduced by 1/92.6 for each game he misses, and that players must notify their teams by June 24 if they're not going to participate. 

Harris' essay in the Players' Tribune was headlined Y'all Hear Us, But You Ain't Listening. To vilify or brush aside Black players because they care about things other than their jobs in a uniquely turbulent historical moment would be a perfect illustration of that headline.

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NBA players with concerns about restarting season shouldn't be vilified originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

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