Adam Silver and Michele Roberts Are the Best Leaders in Sports

The first big question to be answered after the NBA Finals concluded around the same time that the regular season would normally start up was “so when ARE they going to start next season, anyway?”

Now, it appears we have that answer, as Shams Charania reported Thursday that the NBA and the union have agreed upon a 72-game 2020-21 season to begin Dec. 22.

The move is expected to be a $500 million revenue boost compared to the competing proposal that involved starting on Martin Luther King Jr. Day (Jan. 18, 2021) and playing a 60-66 game regular season.

Most critically, it grants the networks their wish of having the Christmas Day slate of games go on as planned, a massive ratings driver for the league, even more so since it will most likely be the second game of the season and possibly even the season opener for many of the teams playing that day.

The league, of course, wanted to start as soon as possible in order to provide maximum profit to the owners. It wasn’t a surprise that putting a product on the floor in short order was their priority.

Far more interesting was the response of the players’ union.

When the Milwaukee Bucks staged a protest walkout of a playoff game, intending to forfeit it in solidarity with the police-involved death of Jacob Blake, the rest of the players in the league surprisingly—or not so, considering the stakes involved in a Black-dominated league with a strong social justice component—followed suit, putting the entire bubble playoffs in jeopardy.

Union head Michele Roberts and even former President Barack Obama intervened, Obama reminding the players how powerful their voices could be as they continued to stand in the spotlight of the American sports narrative at a pivotal time in history and Roberts laying out the simple dollars-and-cents case that maximizing “basketball-related income” was the best way to avoid having the salary cap crater or even a potential lengthy lockout once COVID-19 triggered the force majeure clause in the collective bargaining agreement.

Or, in layman’s terms, “you’re going to give up a ton of money if you don’t play.”

And player representative Chris Paul and obvious influential figure LeBron James ultimately saw that logic and, depending on your perspective, either “caved” or “saw reason” and the season was back on.

A similar situation was in play here. Silver and Roberts are not fools. The owners, rich as they are, could afford to sacrifice a season if things got ugly; indeed, the 1999 and 2011 lockouts both proved how willing the owners are to play hardball in their own financial interest.

The union, meanwhile, to retain any hope of having leverage in negotiations when the time comes to carve up the diminishing basketball-related income that comes from gate receipts having dropped to zero from the ongoing pandemic and advertising sales dropping due to the concomitant recession, had to agree to help maximize revenue so they could claim their own share of it in the next adjustment of the cap that is likely to come before the 2021-22 season.

But making this purely about money misses the point about just how brilliant the league and union are and have become since Silver took over as commissioner in February of 2014 and Roberts followed as union head five months later, during the 2014 offseason.

In the six years since, the two have built a professional, respectful working relationship, each understanding that the good of the sport of basketball is ultimately beneficial to everyone. It’s not “owners vs. players.” It’s “the more money the league makes, the more profit the owners make AND, thanks to players being guaranteed a fixed share of so-called basketball-related income, the higher the salary cap and the more money the players make.”

And there have been points of contention. In 2016, when the new TV deal went into effect and league revenue jumped through the roof, the owners wanted to “smooth” the rise in the cap, while the players, especially those who were entering free agency that year, wanted to sign the best possible deals for themselves, their agents, and potentially their teams.

The agreement that was hammered out? Well, maybe it was a mixed blessing, but don’t tell that to guys like Ian Mahinmi, Timofey Mozgov, and Hassan Whiteside. The point was that the union did best by its players and the owners accepted an agreement that may not have benefited them in the immediate term but gave them a huge pile of good will.

That good will is part of how a deal was able to get done quickly, in the most profitable way possible for the owners and ultimately the players, and perhaps most importantly of all, for the fans, who didn’t want to have to wait forever and a Nevada vote count in order to get a basketball season.

Contrast Major League Baseball, a league with decades of labor acrimony going all the way back to the battles between Marvin Miller and Bowie Kuhn when Lyndon Johnson was still President.

When COVID-19 forced a halt to spring training and negotiations had to happen in order to get a baseball season scheduled and played, there was unrelenting back-biting and bad-faith acts from both commissioner Rob Manfred—who declared terms of an agreement in the media without ever talking them over with the union—and from players, who angrily demanded “just tell us where and when” while simultaneously being forced by the owners to take-or-leave deals that would have cost them millions while the owners made no attendant sacrifice of their own.

Baseball doesn’t have a “baseball-related income” salary cap and revenue split like basketball does. As such, the owners had no incentive to negotiate in good faith, and the mistrust that already had built up to the point where everyone expected a strike or a lockout when the league’s collective bargaining agreement expires after the 2021 season got a taste of what was to come in 2020 instead.

All the delays led to a 60-game baseball season that could have started a month earlier than it did.

We didn’t see that in the NBA. We saw two adults, two great leaders, who realized that what is good for the sport is good for the owners and the players in literally equal measure (that BRI split is 50-50 within a percentage point.)

Adam Silver is a bold, decisive leader. If you needed reminding, watch Silver’s interview with Rachel Nichols after he banned Donald Sterling for life mere months into his tenure.

And yet he doesn’t carry with him the arrogance that you necessarily see from other “strong leaders”, especially in business and government in the United States. Silver bucks that culture of “being tough means being unreceptive to criticism and unable to see an issue from the other side’s point of view.”

Roberts picks up on that; you can see it in her actions. The players pick up on that; you can see it in their willingness to follow not only Silver but Roberts as well when either speak to them in the best interest of the sport.

There is a culture in the NBA, built up over the past six years, of cooperation, of mutual benefit, of compromise, and of making a sacrifice today knowing and trusting that when the time comes, someone else will make a sacrifice tomorrow.

Considering all the news that has come out this week, considering the situation in society at large, considering the oft-cited crass breakdown of social institutions in the United States, a 72-game basketball season agreed upon in a timely manner by a league that thinks first and foremost about (as Star Trek so adeptly put it) “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”…

…when you watch the games on Christmas, remember what made it possible. And maybe we can all learn from the NBA’s example.