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NBA commissioner Adam Silver on playing in a pandemic

Nearly 10 months after the NBA season began, the professional basketball league will hold its first playoff games. Teams and their staff are playing in a so-called bubble in Orlando, Florida, where they are required to stay. Meanwhile, the league is publicly supporting Black Lives Matter, printing the message on the court. Commissioner Adam Silver joins Judy Woodruff to discuss the unusual season.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Nearly 10 months after the NBA season started, the professional basketball league is set for its playoffs games next week. But it is unlike any other season.

    Teams, along with their staff, are playing in the so-called bubble in Orlando, Florida, where they are required to stay put. Family and some close friends can visit during the playoffs.

    The league is also publicly supporting Black Lives Matter by printing it on the court itself, and players are wearing messages on their jerseys.

    Adam Silver is the commissioner of the league, and he joins me now to talk about all of this from the bubble in Orlando.

    Adam Silver, welcome to the "NewsHour."

    You are now into the season, having resumed. You have been saying that it is going better than expected. Tell us why you think that is. And tell us what you think the risks are that are still ahead.

  • Adam Silver:

    Absolutely.

    And one correction. I was down in Orlando, and am now back in New York, and will be heading back again next week. So, I am not currently living in the so-called bubble.

    But in terms of what we are trying to accomplish down there, it — we have — I refer to it more as a campus actually than a bubble, because people do go in and out, other than the players and the coaches and the primary workers down there, the essential people to making it operate.

    And it requires stringent protocols in terms of mask wearing, physical distancing, and daily testing. Of course, they are not always wearing masks. There is that exception, when the players are actually on the floor and participating in the games.

    But that is an exception, because, of course, that is the most dangerous time in terms of the virus, when they are sharing common air on the floor.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, it sounds like people are generally abiding by the rules.

    What do you see as the risks that are out there?

  • Adam Silver:

    Well, the risks, I look at it on a relative basis.

    Certainly, we knew, from the time we shut down our season in mid-March until when we started up again in early July in Orlando, several dozens of our players became infected with the virus, probably no different than other members of the public, particularly young people who were out and about.

    And so, relative to the lives they were living, we know this is much safer. In fact, we have had zero positive cases since we started. But we recognize there is always risk. As I said, it is not a sealed bubble. People are coming in and out. Not everyone, frankly, is tested who is coming in and out.

    There are people who are Disney workers, many of whom are tested. Some aren't. But, of course, we then maintain very strict protocols with them in terms of distancing.

    But it is possible that someone could get infected while they are down there. We are very mindful of that. And I think there is a recognition that, with this virus, we are all facing risks now…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • Adam Silver:

    … and that we are trying, like many industries, to strike the appropriate balance between getting the economy running again and taking care of our workers. And this is the balance that we have found.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    How do you think this different environment, Adam Silver, is affecting the game and affecting the players?

  • Adam Silver:

    It is actually a great question.

    One of the things that has surprised us is that the level of play, considering the four-month hiatus, is better than we thought it would be.

    And part of the reason, we suspect, is because, in fact, the players aren't traveling. I mean, often in an NBA schedule, they play roughly three-and-a-half games a week. They're traveling back and forth across the country. And, just like anybody else, that, of course, has an effect on them, particularly fatigue, crossing time zones, lack of sleep, et cetera.

    Living inside this campus, they are all a short distance from the arena. They are able to get a good night's sleep. They're able to get proper recovery after games.

    And so, frankly, the games have been in many ways of a higher caliber. They have been higher-scoring. They have been very energetic. And so I think we have been all really pleased with the results. And, as you said, the playoffs begin on Monday.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You have said it's — you made it clear the players are getting tested frequently. You are getting quick-turnaround results.

    That is not something that ordinary Americans are able to do. Does that raise a fairness question?

  • Adam Silver:

    It does.

    I would say, for us, we are using a private lab down in Orlando. In addition, we have brought additional testing to the market. We wanted to make sure our presence was additive. So, we brought thousands of new tests down to the market. We have created a mobile trailer testing center for citizens down in Orlando.

    Disney has added additional testing for both their employees and people in the community.

    But I would ultimately say, to me, we are modeling what it means to do more testing, not less testing. I think that we are also participating in studies when we are down there on rapid, quick-turnaround tests, new kind of saliva tests, where you can get a quick determination, something closer to an inexpensive pregnancy test.

    So, I recognize it's an issue, but, again, I think, by modeling it out correctly, we are demonstrating that industries can operate with more testing. But it will — I think, to get other sports leagues up and running and to get more industries up and running, what this country needs is a lot more testing.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Several other questions I want to ask you, one about Black Lives Matter.

    As I am sure you know, President Trump has been — he has become a harsh critic of the NBA. He says he is not watching the games. He says he is offended that most of the players are not kneeling during the national anthem. He is calling the players nasty and even very dumb.

    He claims the public is turned off and that people are not watching on TV.

  • Adam Silver:

    So far, in the games leading up to the playoffs, roughly 55 million Americans have watched our games. We have largely led the night in 18-to-49-year-old men, our core demographics, every night we have been on so far. So, the public has been responding to our games.

    And in terms of Black Lives Matter, we support it as a national movement. Depending on estimates, roughly 25 million Americans have protested for social justice in the country — in this country.

    And in terms of kneeling for the anthem, the league, I recognize it's extraordinary times. The players have — are participating in a peaceful protest. And we have supported that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And I want to ask you something about what the NBA has done overseas in China.

    You have had an extensive and controversial set of business relationships in China that was worth something like billions of dollars. There was a player development camp, where you had young athletes who were reportedly hit and abused. The NBA, you pulled out of this a year ago.

    But the scholar John Pomfret has written that the NBA — and I am quoting — "was party to a massive human rights violation."

    Are you now rethinking your entire plan with regard to China?

  • Adam Silver:

    Let me put it in context.

    Our relationship in China began over 40 years ago, actually, in 1979, when the Washington Bullets first played in China. It has grown considerably over the years, to the point now where we have hundreds of millions of basketball fans in China.

    There was an incident, as you may recall, last fall where an NBA general manager tweeted something in support of Hong Kong. As a result, we were taken off the air, Chinese Central Television, for the first time in 30 years. And our games are still not back on the air, as a result of our supporting that general manager and supporting, frankly, American values, the values of free speech.

    That particular incident that you referenced, we have also been involved in youth basketball for decades in China. There is a particular academy in Xinjiang province where we supplied three coaches. We didn't open the academy. We had nothing to do with the operation of the academy. We supplied those three coaches.

    We heard that there were irregularities in — at that academy. Some of the things that have appeared in articles are not things that we were aware of. We're continuing to do an investigation.

    But we did know that the way the players were being treated there was nothing that the NBA — was inconsistent with the NBA's values, anything we had ever done in China. And we pulled those three coaches out. So that's our response.

    I — in terms of rethinking our strategy in China, I recognize that even now, both — frankly, both sides of the aisle, there seems to be a rethinking of what the United States' relationship with — should be with China. And so we are listening closely.

    I continue to believe that sports in particular can be a force for change, and that these cultural exchanges are critically important. And so, of course, if we decide not to trade with China, and that becomes something that our government is no longer favoring, we will stop as well.

    But, at least for now, we think continuing to be an exporter of American culture, demonstrating to the Chinese who can still see our games through some streaming services what we are about, what the expression is that comes with the NBA, we think is positive.

    But we are always examining what works best for, not just the NBA, but for our country.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, we are going to leave it there.

    Adam Silver, the commissioner of the NBA, on the Friday before the playoffs begin, we thank you very much for talking with us.

  • Adam Silver:

    Thank you.

    And, by the way, thank you for staying on the air throughout the pandemic. I am sure it hasn't been easy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Thank you so much. Appreciate it.

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