On the evening when the 2020 NBA season came to a screeching halt, it was clear that commissioner Adam Silver had made one of the toughest and most necessary decisions of his career. With what we now know about the spread of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) in the United States, it’s clear that he protected both players and crowds from a potentially dangerous situation.
The days that followed that decisive moment were somewhat murkier. The Philadelphia 76ers were among the first teams to release statements on their plan for coping with the sudden loss in revenue. Their decision to cut staff salaries was met with a resoundingly negative response from the NBA world, setting the tone for other teams going forward. Here’s how it all went down.
When the games stopped, NBA players stepped up
The COVID-19 pandemic rumbled in the background of the NBA during the early months of the season. The league is hugely popular in China, and many current and former players have deep ties there. The stories out of Wuhan, where the outbreak first manifested, were immediately horrifying.
This could explain why, in the sports world, the NBA hit the brakes faster and harder than any other league. As NCAA basketball attempted to continue, first with social distancing, then with empty stadiums, the bigger stage in basketball was entirely empty. Within hours, NBA players stepped up to confront the issues that would inevitably stem from pausing the season for an extended period.
There would be many long-term repercussions stemming from canceling the season without a timeline. But a more pressing issue immediately emerged at the forefront of sports coverage, as well as from the mouths of players themselves: how will the low wage workers in NBA arenas make it after suddenly losing their jobs?
The disturbing pattern called out by fans and players alike
One of the first players to step up was rookie New Orleans Pelicans star, Zion Williamson. His $44 million four-year contract is certainly lucrative, but he hasn’t seen almost any of that cash just yet. Yet he stepped up without hesitation and promised to pay 30 days salary for all of the arena staff at the Pelicans’ Smoothie King Center.
The Cleveland Cavaliers’ Kevin Love pledged $100,000 to the local staff at his team’s arena, as well, and encouraged other players and owners to get on board. And they did. A mix of superstars and role players put aside direct cash payments to make sure furloughed staff could make it through an extended period without work.
It’s here where a pattern emerges. As 76ers big man Joel Embiid pledged $500,000 to COVID-19 relief and to fill in financial gaps in Philly’s arena staff, he and his fans noticed something. A lot of players — millionaires — are stepping up. Where are the billionaires?
Specifically, why is a player doing what the multi-billion dollar ownership group of his own team apparently cannot?
How the 76ers’ poor pandemic response served as an example for other owners
Just as the conversation around this millionaire versus billionaire divide in the NBA came to a boiling point, the 76ers organization turned up the heat even more. The group — headed up by three billionaires according to Forbes — announced they would cut staff salaries in half for the duration of the pandemic-related shutdown. This did not go over well.
As the rest of the NBA ownership class looked on, the 76ers ownership immediately became the villains of the league at a time starving for sports news. They were forced to dash their plans immediately, and commit to paying staff their full wages. Embiid quickly fired off one of his patented subversively mean tweets in response, while praising the decision.
This moment was a fork in the road. Ownership could either help their employees during an unprecedented public emergency, or pull back and protect their short-term finances. Joel Embiid, NBA fans, and the press all immediately noticed which way things were leaning. And they combined to shame the 76ers ownership toward a different approach.
In both canceling the season before any other major league, and in self-policing their own response, the NBA has led the way in responding to the COVID-19 crisis.