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opinion

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver speaks during a news conference at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City on Oct. 23, 2019. Silver has managed to turn the NBA into a sort of socialist utopia.The Associated Press

A couple of months after Adam Silver took over as commissioner of the NBA in 2014, the Donald Sterling mess was dumped in his lap.

Sterling, then the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, got caught on tape talking like a podunk deputy sheriff in In the Heat of Night. The offence was so shameless, Sterling never attempted to mount a defence.

Still, Silver works on behalf of team owners. In a real sense, Sterling was his boss.

The usual sports executive playbook in such situations is: a) avoid the issue for as long as possible; b) vacillate; and c) eventually compromise.

Instead, Silver fired Sterling. He banned him for life from the NBA, then worked behind the scenes to ensure that the Clippers were nearly immediately sold. Silver did this all so quickly and ruthlessly that the stain couldn’t quite set.

Silver’s firm hand earned him a lot of trust from his new and largely Black workforce. He’s spent years building on it.

Though everyone’s making a shocking amount of money, Silver has managed to turn the NBA into a sort of socialist utopia. All decisions are made in concert between management and labour (or, at least, appear to be).

That trust helped smooth the NBA’s path to return from lockdown. No squabbles over money. No back and forth from anonymous sources in the press. No hassles at all.

Until now.

The NBA’s plan for return in late July got T-boned by current events over the weekend. On Friday, dozens of NBA players were on a conference call discussing logistical issues related to a restart. During the call, Brooklyn Nets star Kyrie Irving urged his colleagues to consider abandoning the season. He suggested that resuming play while the streets were still roiled by protests would send the wrong message.

On Saturday, Irving’s call was publicly picked up by two more bold-face NBA names.

“I agree with Kyrie,” Los Angeles Lakers centre Dwight Howard said in a statement. “No basketball until we get things resolved.”

“Now ain’t the time for playing basketball,” former player and especially active activist Stephen Jackson said in a video post. “Playing basketball is going to do one thing – take all the attention off the task at hand.”

It’s hard to argue with Jackson because he’s right. The return of basketball will undoubtedly have a soporific effect on America. That’s what pro sports are designed to do.

By Sunday evening, none of the league’s biggest names had jumped into this sub-revolt. If the LeBron Jameses and Steph Currys of the world decide to do so, then this is over.

You rarely go wrong underestimating the tone-deafness of any corporate entity when profits are at risk, but nobody’s this dumb. The NBA is not under any circumstances getting into a racially tinged public argument with its workers.

All of a sudden, Major League Baseball – which is in open war with its players’ union – is looking like a more solid bet to restart this summer.

This is where Silver earns his substantial salary.

In order to keep the train on the track, players must be provided with a counter-narrative to Irving’s. Something they can tell themselves and others that reconciles their desire to work with their need to do good.

An obvious one is leveraging the platform of the NBA. If they care to, players can turn their postgame interviews into pulpits. That way they’re directly connecting with an audience of many millions without the clutter of social media getting in the way.

They make a ton of money. They can give some of it away, and ask their teams to do the same. How many owners want to be seen saying “No” to writing a big cheque to Black Lives Matter right now? I haven’t asked, but this is not a guess: zero.

From the ownership perspective, all of this is a logical progression for the NBA. The institution has been headed in the direction of the trenches for all 3 1/2 years of the Donald Trump presidency. The NBA is becoming to racial inequality what Patagonia is to environmental concerns – a wildly successful brand that treats activism as its core mission. Playing sports or making fleece jackets is an offshoot of that.

The formula clearly works. The NBA has never made as much money or enjoyed such widespread, positive attention. Other leagues are now trying to horn in on that action with their calls to battle, many of which read like they were generated by the mainframe at a Wall Street law firm.

Because it was first, and did it when it wasn’t a risk-free business decision, the NBA is the only league that comes across as fully authentic on the issues of the day.

Also, one potentially unconsidered part of Irving’s idea is duration. If this is too fraught a time to play sports, what does a future, less-fraught time look like?

Once protests have stopped? After X number of changes to exactly which legislation? Once Trump has lost the election?

What if those things don’t happen? Having started down this road, turning back up it may not be that simple.

And then there is the rolling financial impact of cancelling the season. A bunch of TV dollars get clawed back. Arenas that sit empty become money pits. There is the small, but significant risk that if fans get used to a life without basketball, a few might never return.

The owners will be fine whatever happens. Their earnings are averaged over decades. Players don’t get that benefit. Most have only a few years to cash in. That’s something to consider.

At least, if I was Silver, this is what I would be telling a few key decision makers and the league’s thought leaders right now.

Then I’d say, “But in the end, it’s your choice. We’ll follow your lead.”