NBPA director addresses vaccine rollout, injuries during the season, future of the supermax

·11-min read

NBPA executive director Michele Roberts spoke to Yahoo Sports about how the 2020-21 season was a success despite injuries and COVID-19. She also addressed getting the calendar back on track, the future of the supermax contract and her personal future with the NBPA. Below is the full Q&A.

Yahoo Sports question: Injuries were a problem this year, particularly soft-tissue injuries to star players. It's going to be another condensed summer, you know, with the league ending in July and then starting back up in October with the Olympics in between. Are you concerned moving forward as the league goes back to the usual 82 games, the October to April schedule, that next year will be a problem for injuries like this season was a problem?

Michele Roberts: It feels to me as if we've had more injuries, it feels that way [but] the league put out some numbers suggesting that, despite my feelings, there really hasn't been much of a change. And maybe just because of the players that are injured this season, are some of the well, the better-known players, asked me to debate the numbers. But I know how I feel about the injuries. So I'm always concerned because I know we're gonna have injuries. I mean that five months off — some of our players, by the way, had not played since March. We had eight teams that didn't go to the bubble. And then little by little more guys were going home. So, for sure, the Lakers and Miami had the shortest break of any of the teams because they play into the Finals. But a good number of our players [hadn't] played for like seven-eight-nine months, but when the season began. Having said that, yeah, I'm a little concerned I'm hoping guys are in during the break, are listening to their bodies. But the good news is ... we won't have a compressed schedule. We just have a shorter summer for some teams.

Giannis Antetokounmpo makes a leaping pass over Chris Paul during Game 1 of the NBA Finals.
Just like last season's Lakers and Heat teams, the Suns and Bucks will have a shorter offseason as the league tries to get back on a regular schedule. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

I believe it when [a] player says to me, 'Michele, I'm just exhausted.' Of course, I believe them. And I've had players say, 'Yeah, this was a tough season.' And of course it was and frankly, we kind of knew it would be because we knew that we would be playing as many games that we had been [but] played in a [shorter] period of time that we were playing them. The league gave a little more leeway in terms of load management because of that. Yeah, I worry a little bit. I don't worry so much that I think that we should abbreviate the season. But if the players say to me, we want to go back to 72 games, then OK. But there are consequences, economic consequences. Some of our players say, 'I'm not giving up a penny for a shorter season.' And some players say, you know, 'I'm happy to compromise my compensation, if I can play fewer games,' to consensus. I'll find that out. But I will say that, in prior conversations about shortening the season in exchange for a reduced compensation, that has not been a popular option.

Q: I think that's the thing that honestly, we don't hear. And maybe we as media don't explain more clearly, is that this is not a one-size-fits-all league. With 82 games, you get paid (essentially), whether you’re hurt or healthy.

Roberts: It's just, that's the way the world of football is going through this. They agreed to more games and they had to get more money [NFL going from 16 to 17 games]. I mean, it kind of stands to reason that you've got a deal, the deal says we'll pay you X for 82 games. There's some circumstances, most circumstances in which you will get paid. But not just simply because you don't want to play. ... I don’t have to tell you that those compensations are quite different. And some of those guys say, I'm good, 82 is good to me.

Q: The last time we talked, it was before the vaccine rollout. It was an interesting place for the league to be in, you know what I mean? From a 30,000-foot view, how do you feel the players handled it? Whether they chose to get vaccinated? Or whether they chose to even talk about it, because some of your bigger names, kind of didn't want to talk? Some were very outspoken about things that matter to them. But then when it came to this, they closed up.

Roberts: Yeah, it's sort of interesting when it comes to your health. ... Your health is your business. And there's some things that obviously, in sports, you have to disclose, but something like you know, vaccination or anything else is pretty much your business. And so I was aware of people, I had individual conversations with players who were rabidly opposed to a vaccination, who I know got vaccinated, ultimately.

And it ended up being exactly what was described as it was a personal decision, where the guys wanted to work through their concerns. I mean, we were at 90%, which I, frankly, think is much, much more than I would have predicted a couple of months ago. We had meetings with all the teams. And they were asking those who were inclined to be vaccinated and those who weren't asking very, very tough questions of our docs.

And then I'm told that there were team meetings, player only, where they internally discuss their concerns. And so some of the decisions that were made over the player's personal objection, but he thought it was in the best interest of the team. I’ve had players who were telling me that well, you know, 'If I had my way, I wouldn't have gotten the vaccination, but I'm very close to my grandmother and I do not want to be the one responsible for getting her sick.'

So I don't mind when when guys decided with their health — because there's so much that they have to disclose — if there's some piece of privacy that they can cling to. I think they should, and I could support their right to do that.

But I personally support vaccination, I took it. I'm also old as [expletive], so I’m not someone who’d otherwise be given a great chance to survive if I ended up getting sick. What I was concerned about was that there would be a public fight about whether you should or whether you shouldn't. That would have disturbed me much more than the notion of someone saying once whether I'm vaccinated or not is my personal business. I did not want players discouraging other players from taking it, or encouraging.

Q: Did that happen?

Roberts: No evidence of it at all. And I was worried because, frankly, there are some very strong opinions among our guys about taking it or not. And so it could have happened.

But again, I thought it was handled overall pretty well. But people saying, look, whether I do or not is my business. Whether you do or not, is your business. And that 90%, which obviously says I support vaccination and [am] happy. But also I wouldn't stutter, when it came to supporting a player that I know has not been vaccinated, that's his choice.

A general view of a COVID-19 vaccination site where fans could get their shot prior to an Eastern Conference first-round playoff series.
A general view of a COVID-19 vaccination site where fans could get their shot prior to an Eastern Conference first-round playoff series between the Miami Heat and the Milwaukee Bucks at American Airlines Arena in Miami, Florida, on May 27, 2021. (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Q: When players take stances publicly on things that matter to them, and it means a lot, as Black Americans, that means something, and then you're in the middle of a public health crisis, and the most vulnerable amongst us are in that same bloc. Is it the same sort of, I won't say pressure, is it the same sort of responsibility for those players to say, hey, we as a group are vulnerable to this for whatever reason? You know, should they feel that same responsibility to speak out?

Roberts: That's the point. I mean, when guys hit the streets and speak out about about police misconduct, it's because they really believe that the police are targeting Black men. In my view, they're right. But they honestly believe that there's a problem. The players I have spoken with, who are vehemently opposed to vaccination, honestly believe that it is something that is not in their interests. And in the community's interest. But they allow that people disagree.

But despite the fact that I [stated] — the white people taking it, too — they feel very strongly that they don't trust the medical community. And therefore, you can scream until the cows come home about how this vaccine is safe. They don't believe it, and then believe it today, and now they may believe it 10 years from now, but they don't believe it. They do think it was rushed.

I think that's different [than the social justice movement]. I mean, I think if you're not personally committed to it, to an issue and you really have strong feelings about it, then you shouldn't bury those feelings and go out and publicly declare otherwise.

Because people said to me, 'Why aren't the players out there encouraging the Black community to take the vaccination?' Some of them are, but not all of them. And it's not the position of the PA that we're going to advocate one way or another. I go back to the first thing I said, I don't run the PA. If I ran it, yeah, we'd be doing ads. I don't run it, the players do. And the players have decided this is a personal matter, and therefore it is. And you know what, I think they’re right.

Q: It’s complicated.

Roberts: And I push back on people that say that [they] don't know if the players are being hypocritical, that they should be out there en masse telling the community to get vaccinated. No, I can give them a pass on this one. Because there is genuine disbelief in the vaccination.

Q: Last two things, this year when the All-NBA teams were announced, only 15 guys can make it, which means that a few players will be left off. And contract stipulations are affected. Do you like the way that things stand now? Is this something that you want to revisit as a function of the supermax implications?

Roberts: Yeah, I mean, it's tough. It's tough because we're talking about real money. And it's something that I don't think I appreciated before this year. But it was not a huge issue during the last CBA negotiations, not one that we prioritize with being when we want to alter the decision-making process on and maybe something that we'll have to look at going forward.

Because I’ve given it more attention recently than I ever had. And that’s an admission that I didn't give it much, to the extent that can be some other greater transparency in terms of the decision-making process, or that there'll be some some modification of the process probably worth taking a look at.

Q: In talking about the future, it leads me to my last question, because you said that's something we'll take a look at, how long do you plan on staying around?

Roberts: I would probably have been gone after the pandemic, I would have been gone, but it's a pandemic. We're actively looking for, the players are actively looking for a successor. I suspect that I will probably be here for another six or so months. But you know, when I took this job, I made a promise I'm gonna be 65 in September. I'm supposed to be retired at 65. Right. So I don't know how much longer but the best I can do is say not much longer. This is undoubtedly my last season if I even do a full season, but ... the players getting closer to identifying candidates that they are serious about. It's just been very hard to go through this process under the conditions that they've had to. Everything's pretty much virtual. And this is an important decision that the players have to make, and so you know, the pandemic has made it tough. I love these guys, and so I'm not going to just leave, but they are in earnest looking for a successor. We're getting closer.

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