As the NBA prepares to officially restart its season in its bubble inside Walt Disney World Resort on Thursday — and other sports, most notably Major League Baseball, struggle to deal with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic — National Basketball Players Association executive director Michele Roberts said returning to a bubble might be the only feasible way for the NBA to complete next season, as well.
“If tomorrow looks like today, I don’t know how we say we can do it differently,” Roberts told ESPN in a phone interview Tuesday afternoon. “If tomorrow looks like today, and today we all acknowledge — and this is not Michele talking, this is the league, together with the PA and our respective experts saying, ‘This is the way to do it’ — then that’s going to have to be the way to do it.”
Roberts is inside the NBA bubble as the league completed its final day of scrimmages Tuesday and moved closer to tipping off the resumption of its season at 6:30 p.m. ET Thursday, when the New Orleans Pelicans face the Utah Jazz. So far, the NBA has gone three weeks without a positive test inside the bubble, and only two positive tests at all — both when players arrived on campus, thus preventing COVID-19 from penetrating it.
MLB, on the other hand, is attempting to play out its season with teams traveling from city to city and playing in their home stadiums — albeit without fans. After an outbreak within the Miami Marlins, who have had 17 members of the team’s travel party test positive for the virus, causing the team’s games for the rest of this week to be postponed, along with games between the Philadelphia Phillies — Miami’s last opponent — and the New York Yankees, it’s clear just how difficult trying to play sports outside of a closed, sterile environment will be.
“I’m not in the Trump camp in believing it’s all going to go away in two weeks, but I’m praying, praying that there will be a different set of circumstances that will allow us to play in a different way,” Roberts said. “But because I don’t know, all I know is what I know now. So it may be that, if the bubble is the way to play, then that is likely gonna be the way we play next season, if things remain as they are.
“I hope not. Because I’d like to think that people can live with their families. But I can only comment on what I know, and what I know is right now.”
When the NBA announced its schedule to resume the 2019-20 season, it set a target date of Dec. 1 to begin the 2020-21 campaign.
What Roberts knows now is that, at least so far, the bubble is working. And, after she expressed to ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne in May that she was concerned a bubble could have players feeling like they were incarcerated, Roberts said she’s quite pleased with the conditions on the ground.
“I was worried that it was going to appear a little too much like an armed camp,” Roberts said. “I really was. I said, ‘Look. You can’t incarcerate people. Even if it’s a pretty prison, if it’s a prison, it’s still a prison.’
“But having gotten here, sure there’s some things [that you have to do] — having to take your temperature, and the testing. But it could not be easier. For me to comply with the health and safety protocols, obviously I have to wear a mask and all that, but the affirmative things you have to do are really simple, and the facilities where the players are able to play and work out are absolutely consistent with the quality that they need to have and are accustomed to using. The medical facilities and the physicians on campus, I’m not worried about anyone getting sick and not being able to get absolutely immediate health care. So, no, I am completely satisfied that we’ve come up with the right protocol.
“Nothing is perfect, and knock on wood every day and cross my fingers every day that no one has gotten infected since we’ve been here. But this is clearly, we’ve happened upon the way to play. And the players are largely cool with it.”
Meanwhile, the league and the union also have begun preparing for negotiations about how to take care of what will almost certainly be a steep drop in revenue next season because of the ongoing pandemic, which will make it difficult to both play a full schedule and, more importantly, play games in front of paying fans. In a call with the players in May, NBA commissioner Adam Silver said money generated from live game attendance could account for up to 40% of the league’s annual revenue.
Roberts said the two sides are “beginning some very high-level discussions with respect to what the potential issues are,” and said the laborious process that was necessary for the NBA and the union to hash out how to put the bubble together, and then actually go through the process of doing so, “took just about all of the oxygen out of the room.”
One thing Roberts said she was sure about, however, was that when the two sides do sit down and talk about how to handle the likely drop in revenue for next season, there won’t be discussions about a complete renegotiation of the league’s collective bargaining agreement. While either side can opt out of the current agreement by Dec. 15, 2022, Roberts said that isn’t her concern at the moment.
“My preference is that we take care of the only things that we have to take care of, and that is to deal with what presumably is going to be a reduction in revenue of some consequence,” she said. “So, no, the notion of accelerating a renegotiation of the CBA, no. That’s not something that has been addressed and, I would venture to say, is not going to happen.
“We’ll do what we have to do and no more, and then we’ll move on.”