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The Dismal Politics of the Sports World’s “Wokest” League

The resumption of the NBA season could have been a watershed moment for labor. What happened?

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

The Bubble—the sealed-off campus at Disney World in Orlando, Florida, where the National Basketball Association has resumed its pandemic-interrupted season—is pervaded by an uneasy calm. No one there has yet tested positive for Covid-19, allowing the NBA to avoid the embarrassment of MLB’s reopening in July, which was marred by an outbreak among players on the Miami Marlins. The closest thing to a controversy inside the Bubble had to do with the quality of the food. On opening night, LeBron James and the Lakers eked out a 103-101 win against the Clippers, their crosstown rivals and stiffest competition for the top spot coming out of the Western Conference. The Jazz topped the Pelicans 106-104 in spite of All-Star Donavon Mitchell’s poor shooting night and perhaps because New Orleans rookie dynamo Zion Williamson played only 15 minutes. 

So far, anyway, so good. But the run-up to the restart was anything but smooth. The league’s team owners approved a plan on June 4 to restart the NBA season with 22 teams rather than the usual 30. A day later, an executive committee of the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA), the union representing the players, ratified the league’s plan. The restart looked like a done deal. That is, until the details of the plan really sunk in.  

Over the following week, a group of dissenting players, led by Kyrie Irving and Avery Bradley, held Zoom calls to share grievances and formulate a plan of action. The largest meeting occurred on June 12, attended by more than 80 players—close to 20 percent of the league. The invitation to that Zoom call, obtained by The Athletic, was written in the language of labor activism. “We are fighting together to change the system and stand by one another in solidarity,” it read. “Because of our competitive nature, there has been an unnecessary division amongst us. In joining together, we have the ability to empower one another.” 

Some of the players’ concerns fell under the rubric of basic workplace safety interests. How would the league ensure that players weren’t infected with Covid-19? Was playing in Florida, where cases were already on the rise at the time, the best idea? Did the extraordinary conditions require some level of hazard pay? Would players be able to opt out, and, if so, what would be the salary implications of this decision? That the NBPA had so readily agreed to the league’s plan made it seem as if it had barely considered these questions. That a union could gloss over such fundamental labor questions was, to say the least, perplexing. 

The other set of concerns related to the world outside the Bubble. The protests in the streets were very much on these players’ minds. Were they expected to put pressing social justice issues aside to do their jobs? Wouldn’t they be distracting from the cause by playing? The protests also galvanized some in this majority-Black sport to interrogate their industry more closely. According to reports, the Bubble-skeptical contingent discussed demands such as an increase in Black front office and coaching hires, more partnerships with Black-owned businesses and vendors, and direct donations to organizations serving Black communities. “Talking and raising awareness about social injustice isn’t enough,” Bradley told ESPN. “We don’t need to say more.... Protesting during an anthem, wearing T-shirts is great, but we need to see real actions being put into the works.” 

For this group of players, economic material concerns and social justice weren’t separate agendas or at odds with each other. Rather, they were inextricably bound together. In the words of one Black player, who spoke anonymously to Yahoo Sports: “We’re out here marching and protesting, and yet we all leave our families in these scary times and gather to perform at a place where the owners won’t be at?” There was a growing recognition that, not unlike “essential workers” across the country, the predominantly Black NBA workforce was being asked to risk their lives to entertain the public, while the people that owned the league got to sit back and profit from a safe, social distance. 

Positioned against the dissenting players was Irving’s erstwhile teammate, LeBron James. While Bradley and Irving were fomenting a players’ revolt, James argued that if players really wanted their message of social justice to reach the public, the best thing to do was play. “Because of everything that’s going on, people are finally starting to listen to us—we feel like we’re finally getting a foot in the door,” he told The New York Times. This argument–that playing provided players with “a platform” and thus could provide the protesters with another level of support and visibility—cast social justice and labor issues in direct opposition to each other. 

Needless to say, James’s position prevailed. The players would play—and in so doing, they revealed some of the irreconcilable political tensions at the heart of the “wokest” league in professional sports.

James’s approach has become the dominant mode of NBA politics. Under this paradigm, players see their interests as intertwined with that of the league. James wants to play out the season because winning a championship is good for his brand. Similarly, his loftier social justice goals are achieved in a putative partnership with the league itself. What’s good for the NBA is good for James and vice-versa. Achieving social justice starts to become synonymous with winning another ring. 

The contrast between these competing factions could not have been more pronounced. However briefly, the fate of the restart seemed to hang in the balance. But this window was short-lived, as the Irving and Bradley-led group abruptly faded. The quixotic Irving, who was never the optimal figure to challenge the league’s prevailing politics, quickly faded from the discussion. Bradley, whose immuno-compromised son would not have been able to join him in the Bubble, unobtrusively bowed out of the restart. The media went to great pains to deem Bradley’s decision a family matter, and Bradley himself seemed uninterested in kicking up a fuss about the larger issues and implications of his decision. What could have been a flashpoint in the ongoing debate about restarting sports in America, which subsequently grew more urgent following the news about the Marlins, ended with a whimper. When the NBA announced in early July that it was partnering with the NBPA to put “social justice messages” on jerseys, it was framed as a concession to the players—when, in fact, the dissenting faction had long ago given up the ghost. 

All of this points to the essential feature of NBA politics: It is premised on the NBA and NBPA agreeing on stuff. Instead of seeing itself as an antagonistic relationship with the league, the union works to broker consensus, often in ways that primarily serve the narrow interests of its biggest stars. The restart was treated as an inevitability that needed to be sold to the players; worse, labor advocacy was subtly depicted as an impediment to players being able to exercise their “voice” on social justice issues. What the situation really called for was a more radical union—one that could have launched a very different understanding of labor in professional sports. 

The financial stakes of the restart could not have been higher. Hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue from ticket sales, concessions, parking fees, and other income streams had already been lost for good. A part of the league’s $24 billion national television deal, the single greatest source of league revenue, was now under threat as well. If the NBA canceled the remainder of the season, network partners would likely invoke a “force majeure” clause in their contracts and suspend their obligations. Corporate sponsors might very well follow suit, arguing that the truncated season undermined the value of their partnerships.

The revenue shortfall would have hit both the NBA and individual franchises hard. It would also have been catastrophic for players’ salaries. Under the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) players receive roughly 50 percent of league revenue, and each year the salary cap is adjusted according to the size of the overall pie. Canceling the season, and forfeiting billions of dollars in revenue, would mean huge reductions in next year’s cap. This is to say nothing of how the financial ripple effects might undermine long-term league health. Faced with massive losses, small-market teams would be unable to retain top talent, upsetting the league’s competitive balance and undermining the overall NBA product. 

In short, a canceled season would be a disaster for all parties. It would appear that players and owners have a common incentive to get restarted as quickly as possible. But the interests of the two sides don’t actually align that neatly. The restart was a chance to exercise the collective will of the NBPA, not only in extracting concessions related to the restart but also in further advancing the players’ overall aims. Without the players, there would be no restart. They were in a prime position to make demands exactly because the stakes were so high. From a labor standpoint, this wasn’t a doomsday scenario—it was a prime opportunity.

The league and the owners knew this and went out of their ways to guard against any potential strike or work stoppage. The league let it be known that, in the event of a collective work stoppage, players would lose 35 percent of their salaries—$1.2 billion in total. There were also reports that, if the season was canceled, the NBA would rip up the current CBA and lock out the players for the 2021-22 season. The CBA would be renegotiated from scratch, and the current revenue split—considered favorable to the players at 50/50—could skew in the owners’ favor. 

The league and the owners were attempting to preempt any budding radicalism on the NBPA’s part. The players seemed to have their backs up against the wall. But the risk for the owners was just as great, if not greater. Unlike the players, NBA owners have a number of large, fixed costs they have to cover, from servicing their stadiums to paying for office space. There are already reports that, even with the league restarting, many owners are suffering acute financial distress. Some are being forced to tap credit lines; others may resort to selling off minority stakes in their teams to raise capital. 

Moreover, in order to extract concessions, it wouldn’t even be necessary for every single player to strike. If the top 20 stars banded together and opted to “voluntarily” sit out—like Bradley did—the financial risk (roughly 15 percent of each star’s salary) would be relatively small. Yet the leverage they would create—a starless restart would be a commercial disaster for the league—would be massive. Either collectively, or in the form of a vanguard of stars, the players stood to damage the owners as much, if not more, than the owners stood to damage them. 

Public opinion, one of the biggest factors in determining the success of a potential strike, would almost certainly favor the players should they opt to withhold their labor. Imagine if the players had demanded hazard pay for themselves and Disney staff, improved safety protocols, changes in front-office hiring practice to ensure racial equity, and an end to the NBA’s cozy relationship with law enforcement. Given the current mood, is there any question which party public opinion would side with? 

But the conciliatory nature of the NBPA, which is both premised on and feeds into the anodyne version of “politics” favored by the league, made this adversarial stance all but inconceivable. 

The June debate over working conditions revealed a fundamental irony of NBA labor: Even though the players are millionaires many times over, they also occupy the same position as society’s frontline workers. Like essential workers, they are the ones who must risk their health in order to make the system run. And like those essential workers, the players are majority-minority. 

Yet the warped logic of the Bubble has turned the potential for solidarity on its head. Florida is facing a testing shortage, yet players receive rapid, daily testing. While the players golf and fish, the Disney staff who clean the rooms and sweep the floors aren’t receiving hazard pay. In June, it seemed as if the players were on the verge of a wholesale reconsideration of what NBA politics could be. The players could have used the NBA restart to underscore the importance of solidarity for all workers in the pursuit of racial justice. Instead, it’s become a model of how the rich and powerful receive special treatment. Under the current agreement, the players can speak about race in America. But by doing so in cooperation with their corporate overlords, they obscure the structural racism at the heart of the worker/owner relationship in this country. 

Of course, none of these things—be it the pay of Disney staff or the NBA’s racist ownership structure— should be exclusively or even primarily the players’ responsibility. It goes without saying that the league should be taking responsibility for itself and doing the right thing even in the absence of pressure. But this objection misses the point. The league is a business, fully governed by the profit motive. More than that, it is wholly owned and operated by some of the most rapacious moneymen in American capitalism, as only the most ruthless businessmen could ever accumulate the billions of dollars in capital necessary to buy a professional sports franchise. Mark Cuban and Dan DeVos don’t give a damn and never will. 

The lesson of the restart isn’t that things should have gone differently. It’s that they never could have gone any other way. As demoralizing a realization as this may be, it’s also a hopeful one. If the players ever do want to take a more radical stance—if the veil covering the industry is ever lifted—a whole new world of possibility reveals itself. The NBA would, as they say, be an entirely new ball game.