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NBA begins new season amid COVID jump, but a bubble remains ‘a last resort’

It's been about two months since the NBA finished a delayed season that saw its players confined to COVID "bubbles." But with a new season set to begin amid a surging pandemic, the NBA now plans to allow teams to travel and compete in their home stadiums. Michele Roberts, executive director of the NBA Players Association, joins Judy Woodruff to discuss.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The NBA is set to tip off its new season tonight. It comes after the shortest off-season of pro basketball in league history. It has been just about two months since LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers emerged as champions.

    But instead of playing in a bubble again, teams will travel and play in their home stadiums.

    Michele Roberts is a crucial part of all of this, since she represents the players, as the executive director of the NBA Players Association. She helped devise the bubble plan last season.

    And I recently spoke with her about the challenges ahead.

    Michele Roberts, thank you very much for joining us.

    It was just a short time before this coronavirus shutdown hit that you had announced your retirement, but here we are, the end of December, and you have had quite a year battling this pandemic and the effect on the season.

    It hasn't been what you expected, has it been?

  • Michele Roberts:

    No.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Michele Roberts:

    It hasn't been what anybody expected.

    Clearly, when I announced our retirement, I did not for one second think that 2020 would develop the way it has. So, I clearly have not retired, still plan to, but we have got to got a bit of a ways to go before I think I can comfortably leave the P.A.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You helped design the bubble, the well-known bubble that professional basketball players operated in for the season this year. It worked remarkably well.

    Why not continue that for the next season, which gets under way right around the corner?

  • Michele Roberts:

    Well, it worked. Obviously, it worked well, because we were able to complete the season, crown a champion and not have the possible horribles that we envisioned could have happened.

    But I will tell you, Judy — and I was there for three months with the players — it ain't easy. It's — the isolation with significant. Players were fabulous in plowing through it. And for those teams that ended up being there for essentially four months, it took a bit of a toll.

    I mean, these are warriors. And God knows, I could not be prouder of them. But the prospects of returning to a bubble for a period of five or six months was not something we took seriously.

    Frankly, we were — if we needed to do it in order to guarantee the safety of our players, we would have done it. But we watched very closely what the other leagues were doing and decided we would at least try to begin the season outside of the bubble environment, very strict health and safety protocols. And, hopefully, we will avoid a bubble again.

    But it is not the first resort. It's at this point a last resort.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I hear you saying strict safety protocols, and yet you are starting up again another season as the virus is spiking all over the country. There are warning signs all around. In college basketball, they have been canceling games by the scores, if not hundreds.

    How concerned are you that maybe this is being rushed?

  • Michele Roberts:

    I can't say I have no concerns.

    I mean, I must say and I will say that, if I thought my concerns were significant enough for us not to play, we wouldn't be playing. We have spent a lot of time and taken a lot of advice from those people with the super skills, the special skills that know more about this stuff than we do.

    And we believe that we have constructed health and safety protocols, the best health and safety protocols available for play outside of a bubble. But understand — let's not get it twisted — the minute it appears that the protocols are not sufficient to guarantee our players' safety, then the season stops, and everybody knows that going in.

    So, the timing is terrible. You're right. But we did not see the second surge that is now upon us coming when we decided to restart in December. We made the decision.

    But what's comforting is knowing that this is not a decision that can't be reversed on a dime. And it will be reversed on a dime if it appears that the protocols are just not holding.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I'm asking because I have read the critics, or at least the questioners, saying, why not start a little bit later, even if it means — even if it means less revenue for the for the teams, less income for the players and just be really, truly safe?

  • Michele Roberts:

    Well, part of it, we have got a number of stakeholders in this game. It's obviously the players. We have TV partners. We have arenas.

    We — there are a number of people that, frankly, make their living on this game. My primary concern are the players, obviously. And while I won't pretend that revenue is not a factor that everybody is considering when we talked about when to start the season, it's also the case that revenue will not be the impediment to stopping play if we find ourselves wanting to do that.

    So, yes, I mean, we could have — I guess the safest way to do it was to cancel the season altogether. Practically, that was not something the players wanted to do. We wanted to give it a try. We gave the bubble a try. We were right. It worked.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    On the vaccine, once it's available, are the players going to take the vaccine?

  • Michele Roberts:

    Will the players take it? We will see.

    It will not be a question that we have to address in the coming months, because we're not anywhere near the top of the list, nor are we making any efforts to get to the top of the list.

    Look, our players are members of the community. They have got grandmas and moms and dads. And they appreciate that, when it comes to who we have to protect first and foremost, as much as we love our players and they want to continue to stay healthy and well, we firmly get it, and we will wait our turn.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I want to ask you about the Black Lives Matter movement.

    You played a central role and in working with the players to give them the ability to have a voice, to share their views around racial justice, social justice. And that is — we have seen that unfold this year after the tragic death of George Floyd.

    We have also seen conservative politicians come out and criticize the players for what they have done. How do you see that? Do you see that as racist, what we're hearing from some politicians? How do you view it?

  • Michele Roberts:

    Candidly, Judy, I spend very little time worrying about what politicians say. And let's just get that — get that established.

    Our players, again, are members of the community. And they're members — many of them are African American. And so they're members, obviously, of the African-American community.

    The issues that are important to our community are important to our players. And their concern for those issues was evidenced by their — by the voices that they — that they allowed to be heard during the course of the summer. They use their platforms to make sure make it clear what their positions were on these issues, and did all of that understanding that there would be people, including politicians, who would disagree.

    It did not matter to them. It does not matter to me. We understand that, as members of the community, if we think that there's a right — a wrong that needs to be redressed, we're going to do it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And how do you see that unfolding in this coming season for 2021?

    We have different political leadership in the country, a different president. Is it going to look different, do you think, on the part of the players?

  • Michele Roberts:

    No.

    I mean, sadly, as recently as, what, last weekend, another member of our community, another African American male, was killed by the police. I have been speaking with players since then. They want to know what they can do collectively. Obviously, individually, they're doing what they want to do.

    So, their use of their platforms is not going to change. We're now in season again. So, it will be a little different, because we're not in a bubble. We don't have all the guys together. But their commitment hasn't changed.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Michele Roberts, the executive director of the National Basketball Players Association, thank you so much.

    And we wish you well. We wish you safety in this coming season. Thank you.

  • Michele Roberts:

    Thank you, Judy. Always good to talk to you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We're grateful to Michele Roberts.

    And, of course, the NBA season gets under way tonight.

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