PHOENIX — Usually, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver steps on stage here to talk about the state of the league and the success of the NBA Finals participants.
But in his media availability before Game 1 between the Phoenix Suns and Milwaukee Bucks, Silver also chimed in on ESPN dealing with inner turmoil involving NBA anchors Rachel Nichols and Maria Taylor.
“It’s particularly unfortunate that two women in the industry are pitted against each other,” Silver said. “Both Rachel and Maria are terrific at what they do. They work extraordinarily hard.”
The New York Times obtained a leaked recording of a phone conversation during last year’s NBA bubble between Nichols and Adam Mendelsohn, the advisor of Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James. Then, Nichols expressed frustration that ESPN assigned Taylor to last year’s NBA Finals and stated it was in her contract that she would have those responsibilities. After praising Taylor, Nichols argued that ESPN did so amid pressure to improve its racially inclusive work-place practices.
“I wish Maria Taylor all the success in the world — she covers football, she covers basketball,” Nichols said in an audio excerpt published by the Times. “If you need to give her more things to do because you are feeling pressure about your crappy longtime record on diversity — which, by the way, I know personally from the female side of it — like, go for it. Just find it somewhere else. You are not going to find it from me or taking my thing away.”
Nichols has continued to host ESPN’s “The Jump” show this season while Taylor has hosted “NBA Countdown.” While Taylor’s contract is set to expire in three weeks, ESPN replaced Nichols with Malika Andrews for sideline duties for the NBA Finals. The Times report also said that ESPN suspended the digital video producer who told the network’s human resources department she shared the video with Taylor. The producer, a Black woman, was suspended two weeks without pay and has since left the company.
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“I would have thought that in the past year, maybe through some incredibly difficult conversations, that ESPN would have found a way to be able to work through it. Obviously not,” Silver said. “I should also say, too, that these issues are not unique to ESPN. As I said, the league is working on its own issues in terms of doing a better job with diversity. It’s not just in sports, but in companies around America, there’s a reckoning going on.”
Although Silver expressed “confidence in the leadership of ESPN and of course in my Disney colleagues,” he lamented the networks’ issues played out publicly instead of behind closed doors.
“What we’re seeing in ESPN, it’s one thing to talk about the principles around diversity and inclusion, it’s something else when it comes to somebody’s specific job and how that’s handled,” Silver said. “What I’ve learned from dealing with these issues in the NBA is that they are incredibly complex. There’s no magic bullets here, and they require a very labor-intensive effort of getting people in the room and working through these issues by talking a lot about them, and then talking even more about them, and creating a climate where people are comfortable saying what’s on their mind where people are given the benefit of the doubt, especially long-term employees that are in good standing, that when they do make comments, that people recognize that people make mistakes.
“Careers shouldn’t be erased by a single comment. We should be judging people by the larger context of their body of work and who they are and what we know about them.”
Did compressed NBA season contribute to injuries?
Silver spent the first seven minutes of a 10-minute opening statement on the challenges of the NBA’s compressed 72-game schedule.
“It’s just been an enormous physical and emotional burden on everyone,” Silver said. “I think we see that every day. There’s been a lot of discussion around the injuries. Putting aside the specific data for a second, I have no doubt that the additional stress, again physical and emotional, on them contributes to injuries.”
But does mean that Silver regrets starting the 2020-21 season only 71 days after the Los Angeles Lakers won an NBA title in the campus bubble?
“I still maintain that, balancing all these various issues, that was still the best outcome out of a variety of unpopular decisions,” Silver said. “But it’s unclear and I accept the criticism. It’s part of the job, whether it comes from players or the media or others, and we’ll see. Maybe it will take a few years to really look back on this season to really understand what we did right and what we did wrong.”
The NBA oversaw a record nine All-Stars missing at least one game because of injuries. Although National Basketball Players Association president Chris Paul said the union leaned on player input on how and when to start this season, Lakers star LeBron James were among the most vocal star players to question whether the NBA prioritized salvaging revenue than player health both from the coronavirus pandemic and navigating through a compressed season.
Still, the NBA shortened its season from 82 to 72 regular-season games while still having concerns about player health.
“The issue which we’re trying to get to the root of is does resting work, frankly? Does load management work?” Silver said. “There’s different theories out there on it. What’s most surprising, as I said it’s not just about injuries up this season. We have seen this upward trend for several years. And you would like to believe that with the investment, the level of sophistication, the number of doctors, the amount of analytics we look at, the data that we collect that we couldn’t in the old days, that putting the pandemic aside, we would have seen improvements and we haven’t seen that yet.”
What will 2021-22 NBA season look like?
Silver did not have specifics on when the 2021-22 season will start or if it will feature an 82-game schedule. But Silver was firm on two things.
One, Silver offered clarity on if the NBA will have any international exhibition games.
“It’s clear it’s not going to happen this fall,” Silver said. “But it’s my hope it will be the following year.”
Two, Silver said the NBA will continue some version of a play-in tournament.
“Overall, it was very positive for the league and the players,” Silver said. “Certainly there’d been some suggestions about some tweaks we should consider, but again, I think once we bring it back to our owners for a vote and the Players Association meets and has an opportunity to consider it, it’s my expectation that it will continue for next season.”
With Silver estimating that the NBA took a 33 percent decrease in revenue, the league plans to host games next season at full capacity.
Silver spoke frankly about NBA’s relationship with China
Silver offered both diplomacy and candor when talking about the league’s business dealings with China, which has fielded scrutiny for its human rights violations, censoring free speech and unfair trade practices.
“It’s hard to divorce what’s happening with the NBA from larger geopolitical issues between the U.S. and China,” Silver said. “I do think it remains important, that particularly when tensions are high between governments, that we foster these sports, educational, cultural relationships.”
Tension emerged in the 2019-20 season when former Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted out support for Hong Kong protestors shortly before the Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets played a pair of preseason games in Shenzhen and Beijing. Although Silver defended Morey’s freedom of speech and resisted pressure from the Chinese government to fire him, Silver stressed that Morey’s views did not reflect the NBA’s.
“It certainly doesn’t mean that we are blessing everything that happens in China by any means. We are at root an American company, and so we follow U.S. government policy,” Silver said. “But it’s my expectation that we will continue to distribute our games in China through their service, Tencent, and others, and that we can play a productive role in helping the people of the United States and the people of China have a better understanding of each other, and see that we’re all human beings and that there is commonality between us.”
How diverse are the NBA head coaching positions?
Silver offered mixed reviews on how the NBA used its offseason head-coaching vacancies to improve its diversity.
The NBA has 10 Black head coaches following the recent hirings with the Dallas Mavericks (Jason Kidd), Portland Trail Blazers (Chauncey Billups) and Boston Celtics (Ime Udoka) after only having seven this season.
“We have seen positive developments there in terms of the number of vacancies that are being filled,” Silver said. “This is something that requires daily attention. So again, positive movement in that direction, but we’re not going to rest on our laurels there.”
As for women? The NBA does not have a woman head coach despite San Antonio Spurs assistant Becky Hammon fielding multiple job interviews for head-coaching vacancies. The New Orleans Pelicans, Orlando Magic and Washington Wizards still have vacancies, making it both possible and unclear if the league’s representation will improve.
“It’s a little bit frustrating. It’s an area where even just looking around the room here, you would like to see more women represented in the room here today, in all aspects of our business,” Silver said. “We have historically made more progress on race rather than on gender. But I think that’s beginning to change. It’s slow. It’s frustrating. But it’s the work that we have to do every day to change.”