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Roberts: ‘They’re not fighting about it; they’re talking about it’

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MLK Sports Legacy Award Recipients - National Civil Rights Museum Visit Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

In an interview with ESPN, players union executive director Michelle Roberts said her members are not battling about a return-to-play, but rather discussing alternatives in the wake of Friday night’s conference call. In that call, Kyrie Irving suggested players should consider boycotting the return.

“It’s not a question of play or not play,” Roberts told ESPN. “It’s a question of, does playing again harm a movement that we absolutely, unequivocally embrace? And then whether our play can, in fact, highlight, encourage and enhance this movement.

“That’s what they’re talking about. They’re not fighting about it; they’re talking about it.”

Irving reportedly led the discussion Friday in which nearly 100 players (according to the latest count) participated. Irving suggested that players should consider not playing to highlight social justice issues.

“I don’t support going into Orlando,” Irving, a union vice-president, reportedly told the players. “I’m not with the systematic racism and the bulls---. … Something smells a little fishy. Whether we want to admit it or not, we are targeted as black men every day we wake up.”

He was not alone. There’s also been concern in the union rank-and-file about conditions within the Walt Disney World “bubble,” the rising rate of coronavirus infections in Florida and whether stars have too large of a role in union talks with ownership.

According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Ramona Shelburne, the divide on social justice comes down to whether a return or a boycott would be most effective in highlighting the deaths of black men and women at the hands of the police and larger issues of systemic racism.

Several players on the call Friday said they were considering sitting out the remainder of the season in order to focus on social justice issues, or because they were uncomfortable with the proposed plans to resume the season with 22 teams in a campus-like environment in Orlando, sources said.

Others argued that the NBA can bring more attention to the movement by playing and using the league’s platforms afforded them once the season resumes.

Woj and Shelburne quoted Roberts as telling players that one of the most effective sports protests ever came in Mexico City in 1968 when after winning the 200 meter race, US sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their gloved fists in a Black Power salute. The protest, she noted, was effective because they had won the race and their protest was seen worldwide.

However, there are other issues beyond social justice, “bubble” conditions and health, reports Sean Deveney, writing for Forbes Sports. He reports that Irving is the unlikely messenger for a more democratic union, one that caters less to stars. It was the stars, led by LeBron James and Chris Paul, who agreed on the basic rules affecting the return-to-play.

Referring to Friday’s call as “Irving’s Insurrection,” Deveney wrote...

In rallying players to nix the tentative agreement between the NBA and the NBPA to get back on the court, Irving exposed a schism within the players union that has existed for about as long as there has been a players union—the gap between the ultrarich stars at the top of the league’s salary food chain and the more run-of-the mill role players who make up the bulk of NBA rosters.

Irving, despite one of the game’s highest paid players, struck a chord among the more than 300 players who make less than the league average.

Irving is an odd messenger, making $31.7 million this year, but his voice rang true among many players fed up with the star-friendly turn the union has taken in recent years...

From the beginning, the proposals to return to action amid the spread of the novel coronavirus have been led, on the players’ side, by the wealthiest members of the union—those with the most to gain by coming back to play. That was highlighted by a conference call in May with a limited number of high-level players, including LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard, in which it was decided to present a united front in favor of playing again.

Deveney quoted agents for the less highly paid players as saying there is a great deal of “resentment” about the union as run by Chris Paul. Paul has led the union since 2013 when Derek Fisher was ousted following the 2011 lockout.

One agent told Deveney...

“So guys are looking at this Disney World stuff and saying that the league and the union mostly only did this with the star players. It’s the same thing they’ve been complaining about. Too much Chris Paul, too much LeBron.”

Woj and Shelburne also noted the disparity between the league’s economic classes...

Some players have privately questioned whether star players will be held to the same quarantine standards as role players, which the NBA and NBPA have insisted would be the case, sources said.

At this point, there’s no indication that all of this is enough to compromise the league’s plans to return, but some players may decide not to play, sources told ESPN. Irving, of course, is not playing.

Next up in the process are the submission of two key documents: one the side agreement to the collective bargaining agreement laying out details on all manner of issues related to the return and detailed protocols on health and safety.