This is the time for leadership

Why has Adam Silver’s NBA lost its voice?

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BY HENRY ABBOTT

Mike Mullen, former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff says “this is the time for leadership.” Police and the National Guard are engaged in what he calls “American carnage.” NBA players are on the front lines. 

NBA commissioner has always been an important job. But never more than now, when the NBA has massive influence in the global conscience on the global coronavirus pandemic, the global demonstrations in response to the police murder of an NBA player’s close friend, and the ongoing battle for control of Hong Kong. 

Lives are on the line in all cases. Lives already impacted by the actions of Adam Silver. There has never been a better time for a sports commissioner to really lead. 

So why has the NBA lost its voice?


The conventional playbook on leadership in times of crisis is to over communicate. The NBA, in contrast, has never been quieter. Reporters have been tossing around the words “22 minutes” because that is the total time we have had with the commissioner since the pandemic began.

A brief crisis timeline:

March 6—The coronavirus is dominating the news. No other topic matters. Several organizations (Santa Clara County, MIT) have just banned large gatherings. But we’re at one, MIT Sloan. Amazingly, in a way that feels coordinated, coronavirus is all anyone can talk about in the audience, but it is not mentioned at all from the stage. Adam Silver is not present, but NBA senior vice president Evan Wasch is—talking in great detail about the NBA schedule. As the panel ends, I approach Evan to see if I can ask him if the league has considered adjusting the schedule in deference to the virus. He freezes. A PR staffer is on hand and directs me to call someone back in New York who is not helpful. The NBA is a no comment on the coronavirus.

March 11—I get a tip that an NBA player has coronavirus symptoms and is quarantined. I email the NBA at 6:52 Central time, long before tipoff of Jazz at Thunder.

To this day, no response and no explanation. A few hours later the world knew Rudy Gobert had tested positive for the coronavirus and the NBA season was suspended. The league still has never taken hard questions about that night.

April 17—Commissioner Silver addresses the media for 22 minutes, saying it’s “about the data and not the date.”

May 25—George Floyd dies, on video, with a police officer’s knee on his neck. One of his closest friends was the NBA’s Stephen Jackson—dozens of NBA players are involved in protests that raise the most profound questions about the nation. Commissioner Silver remains, nearly a week later, on a very short list of business leaders who have not made strong statements in support of protestors. (At Facebook, people are quitting jobs over similar dissatisfaction with their leader.)

Once, improving race relations was a cornerstone of Silver’s tenure. In banning Donald Sterling for racist comments, Commissioner Silver said, "I am personally distraught that the views expressed by Mr. Sterling came from within an institution that has historically taken such a leadership role in matters of race relations and caused current and former players, coaches, fans and partners of the NBA to question their very association with the league.” At that time, Lee Jenkins of Sports Illustrated quoted Silver’s law school friend Michael Alter, who is now the principal investor of WNBA’s Chicago Sky, saying: "[Silver] tended away from the corporate side of things. He believed in larger ideals of justice and equality, and this was a way he could make an impact." 

June 1—An internal Adam Silver memo on America’s painful racial past leaks to the Associated Press. It says “as an organization, we need to do everything in our power to make a meaningful difference.” Silver has not discussed the issue in public himself. 


Increasingly, it is looking like a pattern. The first NBA positive COVID-19 test shut down the league, which played a massive role in the national response—triggering social distancing to flatten the curve. Without Silver’s decisive response to Gobert’s test, there’s no telling which NBA game might have become a superspreader event, like the famous Game Zero in Italy.

Yet, other than an April 17 conference call, Adam Silver has not discussed any of this with the media. He has made 100 of the biggest decisions of his life arguably without facing one difficult question in public. Here’s one: if I knew about a real risk of infection in advance, why did it take a sprinting official from the Thunder (not the Jazz who had left Gobert in hotel quarantine, not the league that pledged to be monitoring such things) to stop the game?

His one signature moment of that press conference, for which he was roundly praised, was to declare that the decision to reopen would be about “the data and not the date.”

That’s looking iffy now. We got a date without any data, evidence, or explanation of any kind.

A few hours after Shams’ tweet on Friday, I sent the NBA 20 questions asking about the data. The call to reopen is summoning thousands of people into high-contact, close-quarters, heavy-breathing, indoor work in the middle of a pandemic. Some of them are millionaire 20-year-old athletes with the finest healthcare in the world. Others are 60-plus-year-old coaches or Disney food servers. Some have complex health histories. 

Many are black. “Collectively, Black Americans represent 13% of the population in all areas in the U.S. releasing COVID mortality data, but they have suffered 25% of deaths,” says a recent report from APM Research Lab.

Of course there is risk. I like to think the NBA could be an American microcosm of, say, South Korea, in assembling the right tools, tests, and strategies to manage their way through with minimal threat to human life. And so I wanted to get a sense of the framework for their decisions. On Friday, after a week of careful conversations with many highly regarded health experts (including some who have consulted with professional leagues including the NBA) I emailed the league the following 20 questions:

1. One successful model of containing the spread of the virus has been how the porn industry reacted to the AIDS epidemic. It’s based on a lot of testing, but if there is one positive test, the whole industry shuts down for contact tracing and containment. This has also been part of plans for other leagues, developed with epidemiologists and scientists. Will the NBA do that? What evidence or science is that decision based on?

2. In mid-April, Adam Silver outlined four data points that could trigger readiness for reopening. He said it was about the data not the date. How are we doing on that front? What data triggered the reopening? He outlined four criteria he had his eye on at the time (new cases, availability of testing, anti-virals, path to vaccine). Are those still the criteria or have they changed?

3. What has the league told those in vulnerable populations? Should they report to work or not? Who are the vulnerable populations in the NBA’s view? Are those with sickle cell disorders on the list?

4. Will players be allowed to visit other parts of the Disney park, for instance Disney World?

5. Will the league hold games outside to reduce risk of transmission? Why or why not?

6. Who will wear masks? Coaches? Players on the bench? Players in the game? Camera operators, bus drivers, and the like?

7. How many N-95 masks does the NBA have, if any? Who will get them?

8. What if someone coughs on the court? 

9. What is the league's thinking on how frequently to test the athletes, coaches, and officials and which test will they use, the rapid (lower sensitivity) or the 24-hour (high sensitivity) test?

10. If someone from the NBA’s site needs coronavirus treatment, where will they get it? What if they need to be hospitalized or in an ICU? Which hospital will they go to?

11. Will Adam Silver be on site? Will NBA governors? What about their families?

12. What are the rules of the quarantine required to enter the NBA’s “bubble?”

13. Other leagues have suggested that a shutdown could be triggered by a surge in local cases. Has the NBA considered any such protocol? What are the parameters?

14. July is Hurricane season in Florida. What happens if there’s a need to evacuate?

15. What happens to the income and benefits, including health insurance, of an employee who wants to opt out of the reopening? What if they want to opt out because of a health condition that puts in a high risk category? Does the American with Disabilities act apply to those who can’t work because they’re in high-risk categories? What if they want to opt out because of a health condition that puts a family member in a high risk category? What if they want to opt out because of mental health issues?

16. Will employees be asked to sign a waiver? What does it say? Is it the same waiver for players, coaches, and other employees, or are there different ones?

17. Does the NBA or its teams accept none, some, or all risk of employees getting the coronavirus while working in the NBA?

18. Will flying a few thousand people to the Orlando area for the NBA increase coronavirus risk to the local Florida population?

19. Will players and coaches get around in their own cars or on buses?

20. Can we talk to the NBA’s medical experts?


Late on Monday came word that the NBA won’t answer any of the questions above. Nor will they respond in any way, with even a few sentences about say, the role of science in reopening. Not now. They say they expect to answer them in the future, but only once their plan is complete, at a time of their choosing. 

In contrast, Erica Vanstone runs the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association and was more than happy to share with me her league’s rigorous, science-based approach to a phased reopening. You can see the whole thing. It’s stunning, confidence inspiring, and includes graphics like this:

Why is the NBA behind roller derby in talking about health risks?


Donald Trump is as rabid as politicians get on the George Floyd protests and the politics of the coronavirus. 

THEORY: The NBA has calculated that it is worth doing whatever it takes to stay on Trump’s good side. Silver is close to Jared Kushner. Several of Silver’s bosses—Micky Arison, Tilman Fertitta, Josh Harris, James Dolan, Anthony Ressler—have cultivated ties to the White House and have their own business fortunes at stake. The DeVos family, whose Magic franchise is soon to become the NBA’s de facto hosts in Orlando, don’t only have a presence in Trump’s cabinet, but a history in bankrolling many of the right-leaning causes that have shaped the current American moment—up to and including, reportedly, key support for Operation Gridlock, the Michigan protests lauded by the President, and that reportedly included some confederate flags.

It’s easy to imagine this could be why the NBA says almost nothing—to avoid rousing a volcano.

Science has a hard time around power.


David Stern had his flaws, but it’s impossible to think he’d be silent through this or take his cues from Donald Trump. Perhaps he spoiled us, as media and fans. Perhaps he spoke too much. One advantage to the NBA of Stern’s big mouth: it kept us from imagining what he might be thinking. 

Now we have to wonder. Three thousand five hundred-or-so people will soon be living at Disney in Florida, in a bubble designed by people who work for Silver. Will reopening the NBA cause sickness? Are they taking the science seriously? When players say they trust the NBA, should they? Will the NBA—whose players are in crowds on video daily at this point—bring the virus to Florida, where the virus is not in decline? (Geneticists find that the primary cause of hot spots in Texas, Louisiana, Arizona, and the West Coast was New Yorkers hopping on planes. NBA headquarters are in New York.) Are we, the NBA, a rare American place using science to get it right? Or did we just get tired of listening to scientists, and eager to make some money again? 

Without hearing about the NBA’s plans, we can’t know. Maybe it’s splendid. All we know for now is it’s a backroom deal. Lots of communication is happening, just not with the public. 

A source tells me that in the early days of the pandemic, one NBA governor said that he wanted to reopen immediately, no matter the health consequences. There have been many comments, like this one, saying “hopefully” the league will reopen soon, which is different from saying hopefully it will be safe for employees soon. 

Silver’s line about the data and the date was a quote from Disney CEO Bob Iger, who was in the NBA’s Board of Governors’ virtual meeting in the middle of April. Wednesday’s New York Times calls the relationship between Iger and Silver a “bromance,” and a deal to reopen a “win-win” for the businesses of Disney and the NBA. But that article doesn’t explore the health implications for anybody. And now the league is set to reopen on a schedule that lines up nicely with Disney World’s phased July reopening

Adam Silver works for the 30 billionaires who own teams. How would we know if, essentially, he had been railroaded into putting the business ahead of health?

How did we get a date without any data?


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Today on BRING IT IN: Ari Caroline, senior vice president of health strategy of Tempus Labs, discusses health strategies of reopening the NBA at Disney.