Real Leaders

The NBA: A Role Model for Leading in a Time of Crisis

A legendary Green Bay Packer coach once said, “perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection, we can catch excellence.”

Three months ago, NBA commissioner Adam Silver and 16 NBA teams arrived at the Bubble to restart their season, ahead of both the NFL and MLB, under unprecedented conditions. The Bubble is an isolation zone at Walt Disney World, created by the NBA to protect its players from the COVID-19 pandemic, and is the first of its kind in sports history.

Over the past three months, 1500 players, coaches, and staff have co-existed and thrived in a bubble community with zero COVID cases. The teams operated out of three hotels and played their games in three distinct basketball facilities. 

With just a few games left in the season, the NBA is on the verge of setting the standard as the role model of successful, positive influence leadership in a major professional sport during a crisis.

What is a Positive Influence Role Model?

A positive influence role model sets a powerful example of managing a successful business during this crisis. NBA commissioner Adam Silver, Deputy commissioner Tatum, NBA Players Association (NBAPA) leaders, and the players collaborated to manage this crisis so that a winner could be crowned on the court and the fans could enjoy the games on television. Additionally, so the league, the teams, and the players could generate earnings while still protecting the health and safety of the 1500 people in the bubble. 

The NBA created a role model of positive influence for other major sports to emulate. So, how did they do it?

The NBA established “rules of the road” and a list of dos and don’ts that were considered mandates for everyone. They put health and safety first, deployed a strict set of protocols, and enforced them with vigilance and discipline.

As deputy commissioner, Tatum stated, “we’ve been able to demonstrate a model for how you operate a business during a pandemic.”

Business (Not) As Usual 

Let’s not forget the NBA is an association of teams with a commercial purpose. The Bubble created an environment for the league, its teams, and players to earn some of the money otherwise lost to the pandemic. 

Forty percent of the NBA’s revenue ordinarily comes from arena sales — lost entirely due to the pandemic. While the bubble also eliminated all merchandise sales, it did create television and digital content sources of revenue. By the end of the season, more than 1,000 hours of play and nearly 150 games will be televised on ABC, ESPN, TNT, NBA TV, and other regional networks. While the ratings are down due to extenuating circumstances, the league added millions of new followers from digital platforms, e.g., Twitter and Tik Tok. 

Deputy commissioner Tatum summed it up best, “doing this together with the NBAPA has been critical. We had to be partners.” 

A Positive Influence Union

In late August, starting with the Milwaukee Bucks, the players led a three-day shutdown of play prompted by the frustration over the shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin. Several teams were so angered with the lack of social justice that they contemplated exiting the bubble completely and ending their season.

Credit goes to the NBA players, Commissioner Silver, and Deputy Commissioner Tatum, for supporting the three-day shutdown. The shutdown allowed the players to have a powerful voice for everyone in the bubble and take a needed break from play to focus on the more critical issues. The player representatives and the league took the opportunity to discuss and determine their social justice advocacy approach and their commitment to fighting racial inequalities in the country. 

The three-day break resulted in a league that moved forward together. 

Leadership Matters More Now Than Ever

In a crisis, people look to positive influence leaders more than ever, especially to role model leaders, as they can be a powerful force from whom we can learn from. 

The NBA, commissioner, deputy commissioner, and, most importantly, the NBA players are all role models from whom other major professional team sports and businesses can learn.

When this crisis is over, who will we remember, who will we look back on and say they provided great leadership? I believe the NBA will be among a select few who will stand out as examples of positive influence leadership.

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