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Adam Silver Appears Willing to Get Creative to Save NBA Season

The NBA commissioner discussed a wide range of topics related to the unique situation facing his league as the world battles the coronavirus pandemic.

In a live interview on Wednesday night with ESPN’s Rachel Nichols, NBA commissioner Adam Silver offered key insights into how the league has handled the ongoing coronavirus disease pandemic and how it intends to move forward.

As overarching themes, Silver stressed two core points.

First, the NBA is mindful that its fan base consists of many young people. This is an age group that public health officials warn isn’t taking the pandemic seriously. News coverage of college students downplaying the virus while on spring break seems evidence to that point. Silver maintains that the NBA can play an instrumental role in promoting sound public health among these young people, some of whom seem inclined to discount public health warnings as irrelevant to their own well-being (even though they could infect their parents and grandparents, who may be much less able to withstand the virus).

Second, Silver spoke optimistically about the opportunity for the NBA and its players to be innovative in attempting to resume games and integrate fans—including possibly through virtual technology.

Silver explains the role of “super spreaders”

The 57-year-old commissioner, who is a graduate of Duke University and the University of Chicago Law School, began the interview by noting that he has adhered to public health protocols, and is, like most of us, working from home. He pivoted from that point to observe that the NBA plays a persuasive role in our society and is part of the psyche of the country. “When we went off the air last Wednesday night,” Silver reflected, “it was a larger decision than just the NBA. It got a lot of people’s attention. I think for young people in particular, who are a large part of our audience [and] who frankly weren’t taking [public health recommendations] seriously. . . . They were like ‘Wow, the NBA is off. Something is going on here.'”

Silver then addressed player testing. He expressed that he “honestly wasn’t all that surprised” that four players on the Nets, one of whom reportedly is Kevin Durant, tested positive for COVID-19. Silver dissected the situation almost like an epidemiologist. He emphasized that the players’ combination of young age and residence in the New York area, coupled with the lack of available COVID-19 tests for Americans, put many NBA players at a high risk of infection.

Silver also stressed that NBA players are what public health officials classify as “super spreaders.” This term refers to young people who work in close proximity to one other, who travel with high frequency, who regularly appear in large groups (including the public) and who are usually asymptomatic or have very mild symptoms. Asymptomatic people with COVID-19 are now thought to be much more contagious than was originally assumed. 

"NBA players might not have understood the magnitude of the crisis of our country [when the pandemic began]," Silver said. This put them at even greater risk of infection.

The commissioner then raised concerns about public remarks by Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell, who is one of seven NBA players known to have tested positive for COVID-19. Silver is grateful that Mitchell is doing well but the commissioner worried about the potential downside of Mitchell making public proclamations that he feels fine and healthy. “We have to be careful,” Silver warned, “that other young people don’t see that and say, ‘He tested positive and it’s no big deal.”

Silver defends the access of NBA players to COVID-19 test kits

Nichols pressed Silver on criticisms that NBA players, including those who are asymptomatic, have been able to receive tests whereas many Americans, including those who exhibit symptoms, have been unable to secure a test. 

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio declared on Tuesday that NBA players' getting what appears to be special treatment is evidence of how the elite in America play by a separate set of rules. “With all due respect,” de Blasio tweeted, “an entire NBA team should not get tested for COVID-19 while there are critically ill patients waiting to be tested. Tests should not be for the wealthy, but for the sick."

Silver acknowledged that there are insufficient number of tests in the United States and that is highly problematic. He further emphasized that the lack of tests is genuinely worrisome since it likely exacerbates the spread. However, he took issue with de Blasio’s inference that NBA players have received special treatment because of their wealth. Silver countered that NBA players have been tested according to public health commands.

To illustrate, Silver retold how the testing of Jazz center Rudy Gobert—a test that sparked the league’s decision to suspend the 2019–20 season—triggered governmental oversight over Jazz players. Last Wednesday, the Jazz were set to tip off against the Thunder at Chesapeake Energy Arena when the game was abruptly canceled due to Gobert's preliminarily testing positive. At that point, Silver emphasized, “It was not the Jazz that asked that [Gobert’s teammates] be tested.” Instead, “The Oklahoma public health official there on the spot not only required that they be tested but they weren’t allowed to leave their locker room for four hours with masks on.” Stated differently, the government took control from the NBA the moment NBA players, coaches and staff appeared to be potential infectors.

Silver further maintained that the league has closely heeded governmental directives and, in doing so, carefully relied on the advice of a group of experts led by former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy and noted infectious disease expert David Ho of Columbia University. As part of that effort, eight NBA teams, along with members on other teams who were symptomatic, have been tested. These players, Silver underscores, are super spreaders and it is in the interest of public health that they be tested.

The commissioner further highlighted that the league’s decision to suspend the season altered public perception of the threat posed by COVID-19. “By virtue of an NBA player being tested and the kind of attention it brought,” Silver ruminated, “my sense was that, especially among young people in the United States, people were not taking these protocols all that seriously until the NBA did what it did.” To that point, Silver emphasized that the decision to close the league was not one recommended by the government. He highlighted congressional testimony by Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Fauci was asked by a congressional oversight committee whether the NBA should continue playing with fans. He responded with a recommendation that games should still be played but without fans. Obviously, the NBA went a step further by stopping games.

Silver talks about turning a crisis into an opportunity to innovate

The interview concluded with Silver discussing where the NBA will go from here.

As I detailed in an NBA legal story, there are wide range of unresolved issues for the NBA, including how NBA players would be compensated in an abbreviated or canceled season. Silver opted not to focus on the negative or the problematic. Instead, he tried to construct a paradigm for how the league can return and, just as importantly, why it ought to.

Silver identified three “conditions” that would be needed for a restart of the 2019–20 season in some fashion. The first condition is whether the league could “restart and operate as we have known it with 19,000 fans in the buildings.” You might call this this prepandemic NBA. It seems unlikely that we’ll see that NBA anytime soon.

The second condition, Silver explained, is “should we consider restarting without fans and what would that mean?” Silver expounded that this option would involve players and team staff being tested and isolated in such a way that doctors and health officials would deem the conditions safe. This is the NBA that Fauci seemed to envision as a possibility during his congressional testimony.

The third condition identified by Silver is the most intriguing and enigmatic. He emphasized that Americans and their leaders should take seriously “the impact on the national psyche of no sports programming on television.” He then suggested the possibility that a group of players could compete in a tournament to raise money. Or they could simply compete “for the collective good of the people.” Such a tournament might not necessarily involve five-on-five (the BIG 3 has made three-on-three work with retired NBA stars; and the NBA Jam video game was popular with two-on-two). Silver clarified that this third model is only a concept at this stage. However, it would likely involve using a subset of players who are isolated and compete against each other in tightly controlled conditions.

The commissioner emphasized that to the extent the NBA was a first mover in shutting down a league, it could be a first mover in restarting the economy, too. In that same vein, Silver connected public health to the economy in a way that has not received much attention. “Shutting down the economy,” Silver warned, “is a public health matter as well.” He cited the fact that the NBA has roughly 55,000 jobs, including day-of-game workers in arenas. Silver believes that a tournament-type approach is guided by his overarching view that “we all have to be thinking collectively of the right balance” of health and economic activity—and we all have to discover “we can come out of our homes and say it’s time to reengage with each other.”

The commissioner also believes that games without audiences are well within the NBA’s fan model. According to his estimate, 99% of NBA fans consume the league through a medium platform, such as a TV or online, rather than in person. Silver surmised there are “new kinds of technology” that might give fans opportunities to be virtual and react on the court. “Sometimes out of the worst crisis,” Silver reflected, “comes opportunity” for innovation.

Silver emphasizes the players’ interests

Silver empathized with players, who he says “are going stir-crazy” without games. He also noted that players “are fighting something that’s unwinnable: the aging process.” He explained that a lost year or a lost portion for the year is far more impactful on the career of an NBA player than for most us. Silver’s point reflects the fact that the average NBA career is approximately 4.5 years; the average career(s) for most of us is 10 times that length.

Silver “wants to believe” that the NBA can salvage some portion of the season. Can he make that happen?

The short answer is yes, so long as the National Basketball Players’ Association assents. It seems almost certain that resumption of play would necessitate the league and union agreeing on significant changes to working conditions that are detailed in the collective bargaining agreement. The league calendar, player travel policies, player health testing policies and player compensation are all subject to modifications, at least for the 2019-20 season. But chances are, if resumption of play can happen logistically and safely, the NBA and NBPA would work through those issues and we’d get NBA basketball back (at least back on our TVs).

Michael McCann is SI’s Legal Analyst. He is also an attorney and the Director of the Sports and Entertainment Law Institute at the University of New Hampshire Franklin Pierce School of Law.