Portland guard CJ McCollum is facing challenges both personal and professional in his first year as president of the players’ union. “It’s the life I chose,” he said.
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Portland Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum has been interested in the business machinations of the N.B.A. since early in his career. He was a team representative and vice president in the players’ union, the National Basketball Players Association, before he was elected to succeed Chris Paul as its president this year.
The job pays nothing. It adds phone calls and video conferences to his already busy schedule with his day job. His wife is due to deliver their first child any day now. He has a fledgling wine business.
Why would McCollum want to take this on?
“I’m ready for the next step, the next evolution of myself,” he said in a recent phone interview. “And that’s being more mature, having more responsibility, but also figuring out ways to help more people. Figuring out ways to provide leadership, counsel, guidance.”
Since he started, more challenges have faced him and the Trail Blazers. McCollum, who is in his ninth season playing in Portland, has been the subject of trade rumors. As the team struggled on the court in recent weeks, its then president and general manager, Neil Olshey, was fired for improper workplace conduct. And McCollum is now sidelined as he recovers from a partially collapsed lung.
On top of that, the union is navigating the coronavirus pandemic, with McCollum — who has said he doesn’t allow unvaccinated people into his home — and the league encouraging vaccines. The players do not have a vaccine mandate, but McCollum said, “We were at 98, we might even be around 99 percent vaccinated right now, which is a big deal.”
He’s sought advice from Paul, other veteran players and lawyers and executives who work for the union. He’s learning to advocate for players while building relationships with teams and the league office. The next collective bargaining agreement will be negotiated during his term, and he’d like to help players with financial literacy.
He recently spoke with The New York Times about being the players’ union president during a pandemic, how he handles trade rumors and his relationship with Olshey.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Have you had to explain to others why the extra coronavirus testing is a good thing? [The league and union agreed to require additional testing, even for vaccinated players, after Thanksgiving, which has coincided with an uptick in positive tests.]
I think when we explain to people the importance of knowing — there’s a lot of things that go under the radar in terms of being positive, but being asymptomatic. So I think testing around the holidays when people are flying or traveling, families are coming in from out of town, you’re gathering, you’re more exposed. It just makes sense and the only bad thing that can come from it is finding out that you are positive. But the good news is you’re finding out early and you can save and not expose some of your friends and family.
As training camps opened, there was a lot of attention on the small number of unvaccinated players. Did that annoy you?
Yeah, it did. I feel like we were targeted. Obviously, people look up to us. We play a sport for a living. It’s entertainment. People looked at us as the bar. In reality, we are kind of the bar: We got 98 percent of our league volunteered to be vaccinated, whereas the public was 55 percent or 60 percent at that point. No one was talking about corporate America going through the same problem, no one was talking about how there were health care workers going through the same issues. It was us in the spotlight, and I thought it was unfair because we were doing such a great job of educating our players.
There was a lot of conversation about vaccine hesitancy in the Black community as being a problem for the N.B.A. How did you view that?
There was hesitancy, but I think there’s hesitancy from everyone. We wanted to know more, we wanted more data. Understanding historically Blacks and African Americans have been taken advantage of, especially in similar circumstances and situations. Historically, we’ve been used almost as guinea pigs at times for experimental medicine. There was caution, there was pause, but for good reason.
I think as we’ve continued to educate ourselves and ask the right questions from experts, we’ve learned that there was a shift.
As union president, you have to think about the welfare of other players, but some of their situations impact you too. I’m thinking about Ben Simmons, who hasn’t played this year and how your name gets mentioned in trade rumors with him. How do you process your dual role in that?
A new U.S. surge. The C.D.C said that the Omicron variant’s rapid spread in the U.S. may portend a surge in infections as soon as January, but cases are already spiking, leading offices to cancel holiday parties, Broadway performances to be shuttered and college finals to be moved online.
The Omicron variant. The new Covid variant has been detected in dozens of countries. While Omicron appears to be able to partially evade antibodies, it could be less severe than other forms of the virus, and new laboratory studies indicate that vaccines, and especially boosters, may offer protection against severe disease.
Biden’s vaccine mandate. A federal appeals panel on Dec. 17 reinstated a Biden administration rule requiring larger companies to mandate that their workers get vaccinated against Covid-19 or submit to weekly testing by Jan. 4. A day later, the Labor Department said that it would delay that deadline until Feb. 9.
Pfizer vaccine in younger children. The company said that a low dose of its coronavirus vaccine did not produce an adequate immune response in 2- to 5-year-olds in ongoing clinical trials. The setback threatens to keep the vaccine from younger children for longer than many had hoped.
That’s an interesting situation, but it’s also a part of the business, and it’s the life I chose. I think for me it’s simple: I have to take my own personal individual interests out of it. I have to oversee and protect all of the players if called upon to the best of my ability. We have to make sure that everything is above board and everything is done the way it’s supposed to within the guidelines of the [collective bargaining agreement], and as long as we go about it that way in that manner, I step away. My job is done.
The great thing about our union is that we have so many experts that not only work within the union but that we can reach out to and engage. Ben has done a great job of doing that. Continuing to educate himself and Rich [Paul, his agent]. They’ve continued to ask the right questions while also making sure that mentally Ben Simmons is in a place where he can return to playing his best basketball.
Is it personally hard to hear your name in trade rumors?
I’ve always focused on controlling the controllables. I can’t control any of the noise that comes with playing this game. I can say that as a basketball player you will be involved at some point in rumors regardless of the magnitude because you play a sport. The media kind of dictates the story line. Success and failure also plays a role.
But in terms of where I’m at mentally and physically, I’m recovering from an injury and enjoying being a husband, potential father, a son, teammate and a brother. I think that’s where my focus is at and that’s where my focus will remain.
What’s it like as a player when there’s upheaval in the front office the way you guys have had, particularly when it involves a guy you’ve been close with, Neil Olshey?
It’s unfortunate. We’ve had a very stable organization. There’s been a lot of, I don’t know if volatility is the word, throughout the season. It’s difficult at times because you have to answer questions like the questions you’re asking me. Players are kind of asking me what’s going on. As the president of the union I’m supposed to have the answers and sometimes I don’t. So I think that’s when it becomes a little more difficult, but I think the job is the job.
Obviously, Neil being a friend of mine, being someone that has made a great impact on my life and my family’s life, very unfortunate what occurred with that situation.
At the end of the day, we still have a job to do. That’s where oftentimes people forget about the human element of what players have to go through. We’re obviously compensated very well. We have a great life, and we’re happy and thankful for it. But there’s a lot that comes with this life and a lot of things you just kind of have to maneuver through and it’s a part of the job. And you just kind of get used to it. It’s not necessarily normal.
You work for The New York Times. You don’t have to hear about your value, you don’t have to hear about maybe you should be traded to another organization or company. You don’t have to watch it on TV. Your friends, your family, your peers don’t have to watch it on TV. But it’s not the life you chose.
As an athlete you get used to it. That’s the importance of having a solid foundation, a solid supporting cast. And that’s also why we focus so heavily on mental health because there’s a lot of things that come with this sport that people can see — there’s a lot of things that you can’t see.