The NBA's great debate: revenue vs. safety

Yahoo Sports

The discussion around the NBA’s return has not so subtly shifted further from player safety and closer to financial security over the past week, leading to increased optimism about resuming the 2019-20 season.

In other words, the first league to shut its doors in response to the coronavirus epidemic now appears to be weighing the economic impact of COVID-19 more heavily than the best practices against its spread. The NBA’s influence on public perception of the virus could mean putting a lot more than the health of its players at risk by reopening its doors before testing and containment capabilities improve nationwide.

The NBA’s stark financial landscape

Prior to a conference call with NBA commissioner Adam Silver and the National Basketball Players Association last Friday, NBPA executive director Michele Roberts expressed to ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne several safety concerns about a potential resumption of play. Roberts also likened the possibility of quarantined locations at Disney World and/or Las Vegas to “incarceration.”

That night, Silver essentially laid this out for the players, according to multiple reports: While nobody can make them return to work, there will be significant financial ramifications should the season be canceled.

No return to play will include fans on site, so 40 percent of the NBA’s revenue is already out the window throughout the remainder of this season and possibly into the next. Not fulfilling contractual obligations to regional and national sports television networks in the form of finishing a 70-game regular season and playoffs this summer could further impact the league’s bottom line. The salary cap could reportedly fall as much as $30 million next season, and the current collective bargaining agreement could be terminated.

All this comes with a 25 percent pay cut looming over players starting with this week’s paychecks.

The NBA and NBPA then reached an agreement on Monday to extend the league’s 60-day right to tear up the CBA under its force majeure clause until September, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. That allows for a window between the start and middle of June for the two sides to come to a decision on resuming this season without impacting the 2020-21 campaign, per The Athletic’s Shams Charania.

Also on Monday, NBPA president Chris Paul conducted a call with many of the league’s biggest superstars — including LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry — and they unanimously agreed to resume this season “with proper safety measures once the league is given the green light to commence,” according to Yahoo Sports’ Chris Haynes.

Per the Associated Press, the NBPA shared results in a letter to agents on Tuesday of an informal poll of its members citing “overwhelming” support of a safe return to a shortened regular season and playoffs.

Except, we do not know how anyone here is defining safe, which is a relatable feeling in this pandemic.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver has some choices to make. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
NBA commissioner Adam Silver has some choices to make. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

A shift from abject safety to reduced risk

According to Haynes, Silver told the players’ association at the end of last week that resuming play comes down to “a series of bad options,” even as the league assured “the safest conditions possible.” He told the players, “No decision we make will be risk-free,” The New York Times’ Marc Stein reported.

Then, this from Silver to the league’s board of governors on a Tuesday conference call, per Wojnarowski:

Discussions centered on health and safety concerns, including the goal of getting team officials and players comfortable with the idea that a positive test for the coronavirus upon a return would not shutter play.

Silver told those on the call that if a positive test would “shut us down, we probably shouldn’t go down this path.”

This is a far cry from the days after the suspension of play on March 11, when the NBA’s stance was not to resume for at least 14 days after the last positive player test. The league sent a memo to fans the next day stating, “We intend to resume the season, if and when it becomes safe for all concerned.” And Silver appeared on TNT that night and said of a conference call with owners at the time, “Not one team raised money” as a concern, but rather “the entire discussion was about the safety and health of our players.”

Gone is the idea of a strict “medical bubble” and optimism around rapid-response testing, and in their place is a “campus environment” that would allow players and personnel “to move around, but undergo testing upon re-entry,” per Tuesday’s reports from The Athletic and ESPN on Silver’s call with the owners.

The most logical calculus here is that money is beginning to take precedence over ultimate safety. On Tuesday, Los Angeles Lakers forward Jared Dudley and Cleveland Cavaliers big man Larry Nance Jr. — a 34-year-old on a title favorite and 27-year-old bound for the lottery, respectively — confirmed as much.

“Everybody in the league, we want to finish this year,” Nance told reporters on a conference call, via the AP. “One, obviously because we love the game, but at the same time there’s a serious chance of us missing out on, what, 20-plus percent of our contracts, which is for a lot of guys pretty significant.”

So many more questions to be answered

This is crazy, right?

The timeline to restart this season before it bleeds into the fall and the possibility of impacting a potential Christmas Day start to next season already borders on impossible. The NBA does not expect to make a decision until the start of June at the earliest. Players traveling from abroad (i.e., Luka Doncic, who reportedly flew back to Slovenia during the hiatus) and high-risk areas stateside would presumably have to quarantine for two weeks, followed by a training camp reportedly lasting a minimum of three weeks. Games would not resume until July at the earliest. It’s possible, but the insanity goes well beyond that.

In the absence of widespread rapid-response testing, what happens once a player gets swabbed on a daily basis and each time upon re-entry into the bubble? Does he wait the hours it can take to get the results? Or does he go about his business, working out and practicing, and then get sidelined only once a test returns positive? Can a player test negative upon re-entry and still carry the virus into the bubble? How many teammates and opponents could be infected by a potential false-negative test of a player?

Even if every player and personnel member were in an age range and condition to recover from the virus, which we know is not guaranteed to be true, what happens in the practical inevitability of a positive test? Is there a possibility James or Antetokounmpo or Leonard misses an entire playoff series by being sidelined for two weeks in a condensed playoff scenario? Could multiple teams be quarantined for a fortnight?

There will surely be food, hospitality and sanitation services, medical personnel, TV crews and whatever other roles are necessary to put hundreds of NBA employees back to work in an isolated environment. Not only would they all be increasing the likelihood of an internal outbreak, but their families and whoever else they might come into contact with outside a strict medical bubble would also be at increased risk.

The NBA is surely working through these questions as we speak, but there is really only one question that needs to be answered, god forbid: What if someone dies as a result of the NBA reopening too soon?

When economics becomes a public-health crisis

This is not unlike the debate between the White House coronavirus task force’s leading medical expert and President Donald Trump over the past week. In his Senate testimony on Tuesday, Dr. Anthony Fauci warned against the dangers of reopening the country too soon, particularly now, when “we don’t know everything about this virus, and we really better be careful, particularly when it comes to children.” A day later, Trump told reporters, “To me that’s not an acceptable answer,” amid efforts to restore the economy.

The United States is behind other countries that are only beginning to reopen their economies in terms of both testing and curbing the spread of the virus. The reported U.S. death toll from COVID-19 surpassed 85,000 on Thursday, the highest globally and among the most per capita, all facts that remain today. We are among the most at-risk nations in the world, and the rate of positive tests in states that have begun to reopen the economy is reportedly higher than those continuing to restrict non-essential business activity.

It follows that the NBA reopening would increase risk on a smaller scale. More tangentially, how would the league’s return impact public perception? Silver lauded the NBA for setting a precedent that altered the public’s thinking when it shut down following Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert’s positive test prior to nationwide lockdown efforts. Would a similar message not be sent if the NBA deems it safe to reopen?

Silver told Trump that the league would like to be among the leaders in reopening the economy, citing the crisis as a public-health matter that necessitates a balance with abject safety. There is hard truth in that.

Are the NBA’s problems our problems?

But is the NBA a normal business? Superstars pushing for a return are millionaires many times over. Eighty percent of Nance’s above-average league salary is still $10 million. Dudley, making a veteran minimum salary, will still take home a pre-tax bi-weekly paycheck in the ballpark of $80,000 despite a 25 percent cut. They live according to their paychecks, but surely not the way the average person does.

According to ESPN, small-market teams are concerned they could lose $20 million in revenue sharing next season in a worst-case scenario. New Orleans Pelicans owner Gayle Benson, operating in the NBA’s smallest market, is worth an estimated $3 billion. Memphis Grizzlies owner Robert Pera, whose team works in the next-smallest market, is worth roughly $10 billion. Their economic crisis is not exactly yours.

Granted, the NBA’s return could put thousands of people back to work, and who knows how many others are supported by the league’s employees, but there are serious ethical questions about a non-essential business reopening in the face of a pandemic, even under the safest of conditions. They get more serious when you consider that the collective wealth of the business owners could afford them all more time.

There is little doubt that billionaires crying poor and financially incentivizing multimillionaires back to work applies pressure to everyone from assistant coaches earning six figures to arena workers living paycheck to paycheck to get back to work before any of them might feel completely comfortable returning. And what message does that send to smaller businesses forced to furlough employees amid the epidemic? Might a second wave that could result from reopening too soon create even greater economic concern?

Listen, I want to watch live sports just as much as NBA superstars want to resume playing them, and my industry depends upon it to a degree, but if the league’s push to reopen in July were to cost even one more life than would have otherwise been lost, it is not worth it. In that sense, the NBA’s decision is no more difficult than the one every country, every state, every town is trying to make concurrently. We don’t have all the answers, but we cannot let the desire to crown a champion outweigh the resulting losses.

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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach

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