COVID-19 will define Adam Silver’s legacy

Can Adam Silver steer the NBA through the COVID pandemic the way he has so many other hard moments?
Can Adam Silver steer the NBA through the COVID pandemic the way he has so many other hard moments?
Image: Getty Images

At its core, leadership is unfair. When things go well, leaders get all the praise. But, when things don’t, the burden is theirs alone to carry.

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That’s the position NBA Commissioner Adam Silver is in right now, as the league and the players union announced new coronavirus protocols on Tuesday.

Besides the crackdown on guests/visitors in hotel rooms and where players can and can’t go on the road, one of the most headscratching new rules deals with players not being able to hug opponents before or after games.

A sport where rather large humans dressed in shorts and jerseys breathe and sweat all over each other for 48 minutes can’t hug?

It makes zero sense.

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“No one wants to see more restrictions imposed. No one also wants to see the infection rate increase if there are steps we can take to mitigate the risk,” NBPA executive director Michele Roberts told ESPN. “Our experts have concluded that these new procedures will add to our arsenal of weapons against the virus. ... It would be irresponsible and unacceptable to not employ new measures aimed at better promoting and protecting our players’ safety.”

Four games have already been postponed this week.

“As Dr. Fauci says, the virus will decide,” Silver told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols in October. “If there truly is a second wave, things like that could push us back. We’re also very mindful that while it’s fantastic what’s happened in this bubble, we love our fans and want to bring them back into the arena and we want to do it safely. So if there are advancements right on the horizon. That will be a reason to wait.”

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And despite the new protocols that have been announced, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported on Sunday that the league has no plans to pause the season.

“We anticipated that there would be game postponements this season and planned the schedule accordingly,” league spokesman Mike Bass told ESPN. “There are no plans to pause the season, and we will continue to be guided by our medical experts and health and safety protocols.”

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Less than three months ago, Silver looked like a genius. After many – like myself – felt like it wasn’t smart for the league to restart after it took a pause last March, the NBA and WNBA proved that sports could be played in a bubble if you spend the money and follow the rules. I wrote a public apology to Silver and the NBA for doubting them, as they made it through the bubble without a single positive test.

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But, that was then and this is now. And life without a bubble has been bumpy for the NBA, like every other sport/league that’s tried to operate during the pandemic. And it’s not like the NBA can hide, given that the spotlight will be on them. With college football ending on Monday night and the NFL all but guaranteeing that nothing will stop them from playing the Super Bowl, how basketball handles COVID will be an ongoing discussion, as the NBA is adding protocols while the college game is in a free-for-all. The NHL won’t be able to escape this either, as its season starts this week.

From the moment that Silver has been in charge, he’s had to steer the league clear of huge pitfalls. It started in 2014 when Silver banned Donald Sterling. In 2019, Daryl Morey sent out a tweet that halted the league’s relationship with China, allegedly leading to almost half a billion dollars in lost revenue. And then the deaths of former commissioner David Stern and Kobe Bryant rocked the league to its core.

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Despite all that, COVID-19 may wind up being the greatest test the league will ever face, as it threatens its revenue and health. If navigated correctly, Adam Silver will be a saint. If mishandled, he could be deemed a sinner.

I told you leadership was unfair.