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The restart of the NBA season looks like a disaster waiting to happen

Player health and social justice are at odds with league profits.

Philadelphia 76ers v Orlando Magic Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

As we get closer to the NBA’s reboot of the 2019-2020 season, the pandemic that halted it poses the same threat now as it did back in March. COVID-19 has hit Florida especially hard where the amount of reported cases saw a record-high as the state continues to re-open businesses. Just two weeks ago, Florida’s record for newly confirmed virus cases in a day was 1,601, set in mid-May. That has been exceeded every day since June 12. I recently described Florida to one of my non-American friends as if “playing in the NFL were a state.”

The NBA announced today that 16 of the 302 players headed to Orlando tested positive for the virus. An infection rate of 5.3% is low, but 16 positive tests is almost the equivalent of an entire roster bringing the virus into the bubble.

Some players have voiced wariness over coronavirus and the NBA has allowed them to sit out without penalty. In other words, the NBA has agreed that it’s simply not worth it for some players to play through the risk. But if this is the case, why continue the season at all?

How is any of this reasonable? While the mortality rates for young people are relatively low, the long term effects are unknown but could include scarring in the lungs and various respiratory issues that could conceivably end the career of some professional athletes.

You’re telling me there’s a mystery west coast team reporting to Disney World with four positive cases and we’re simply supposed to “hope” this doesn’t cause an NBA-pocalypse? The league shut down because of one case back in March and they’re now restarting with four teammates plus a handful of positive tests to notable players like Nikola Jokic and Malcolm Brogdon?

None of this adds up.

For the last several years, the NBA has been riding a wave of goodwill generated by, frankly, some no-brainer decisions that my golden retriever could have made, starting with the ousting of Donald Sterling and then moving the All-Star Game out of Charlotte after North Carolina passed the “bathroom bill” that was aimed to keep transgender people out of their preferred restrooms.

The league has also garnered positive press over Adam Silver’s tenure for his good enough stance on players speaking out on social justice issues.

“I would greatly prefer that the players use the platform they’re given, social media, press conferences, media in locker rooms, however they want to do it, to make their political points of view be known.”

It’s been a progressive enough approach to keep fans and players happy. In contrast with the NFL, the NBA has done a great job at letting players use their public platform provided by the league to voice their opinions on contentious topics like the racial divide in the United States. In fact, it goes a small step further than “letting” players speak up, but in fact encourages them to do so, as expressed by the NBA and NBPA:

The two groups reiterated their commitment to social reform as the league finalized their plans to restart the season on July 30th.

In summary, the NBA and the NBPA are united in their objective to highlight and combat systemic racism in Orlando and in the future. Nothing has been finalized, but ideas of increased black representation and opportunity around the NBA, its teams, and businesses were discussed. And while it might sound performative, as is the case with many big brands, the NBA does have somewhat of a reliable track record with inclusiveness in their hiring process:

Despite this, I have a hard time ranking them too far ahead of the NFL when the league still upholds a rule that players must stand “in a dignified manner” during the national anthem, a stance that the NFL—the league that blackballed Colin Kaepernick for kneeling in silent protest—has eased up on.

Consider this: did the NBA ever show remorse for how they treated Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf and his protests in the 1990’s? LSU retired his jersey to honor his actions that cost him the last few years of his career.

On March 12, 1996, the NBA suspended Abdul-Rauf for one game, citing a rule that players must line up in a “dignified posture” for the anthem. It cost him almost $32,000 of his $2.6 million salary. The players union supported Abdul-Rauf, and he quickly reached a compromise with the league that allowed him to stand and pray with his head down during the anthem. But at the end of the season, the Nuggets traded Abdul-Rauf, who averaged a team-high 19.2 points and 6.8 assists, to the Sacramento Kings.

His playing time dropped. He lost his starting spot. After his contract expired in 1998, Abdul-Rauf couldn’t get so much as a tryout with any NBA team. He was just 29 years old.

This is certainly another inflection point for the league. We have some members of the NBPA talking about how best to use their influence in a time of social uproar and—maybe, finally—some positive change. Kyrie Irving, among others, suggested not playing at all because it might detract too much attention from the movement. ESPN’s Mike Wilbon fired back, saying that their NBA stardom provides them a platform to speak to the public all the time, and to not use it would be “shameful and irresponsible.” I highly recommend you watch the full five minutes with Tony Kornheiser and Wilbon’s comments:

“You never give up a platform and a microphone. Ever.”

A majority of the players will likely participate and use the NBA platform they’ve help build for positive change, but there’s still some lingering uncertainty amongst the ranks. As Michele Roberts, executive director of the NBPA, told ESPN:

“It’s not a question of play or not play,” Roberts told ESPN. “It’s a question of, does playing again harm a movement that we absolutely, unequivocally embrace? And then whether our play can, in fact, highlight, encourage and enhance this movement.

“That’s what they’re talking about. They’re not fighting about it; they’re talking about it.”

This statement appears to be at odds with itself. How does “it’s not a question of play or not play” agree with “does playing harm the movement we embrace?” Why would that even be a question if they were truly set on playing? Further questioning if playing “can, in fact highlight, encourage, and enhance this movement” casts even more doubt on whether or not it’s worth trying to use professional basketball as a platform. These are not questions that would be asked by people who are dead set on playing again. The June 24th deadline for players to inform their clubs of their playing intentions has passed, but that’s been a soft date. Until players have to report to Orlando and get sealed into the bubble, this conversation will continue and it should.

It’s important that players in each league have unions to express their concerns. But what happens when their motivations for playing (or not playing) don’t match the league’s incentives to continue the season? Early on in the shutdown, one of the driving factors for the NBA was to honor the local TV contracts that make up a large portion of the league’s revenue:

“What they would love to do is to get to 70 games. And the reason is it’s 70 is a key number is because that is what the deliverable is to the regional sports networks. They are promised 70 games.

“Now, just because a team like the Lakers, for example, to get to 70 games… they wouldn’t necessarily be able to deliver on that because they’ve had a lot of national games, but getting to 70 would be helpful in retaining revenue because they wouldn’t have to refund some to the local TV.”

The NBA has decided to bite the bullet on some of these deals by proactively eliminating eight teams, but that doesn’t matter. What’s important is that financial considerations are put on the same level as health and social justice. Sure, some of the financial concerns affect the players as well, but not on the same scale. Just because two groups (players and owners) share a problem, that doesn’t mean they share the same solutions or priorities.

Weighing health and profit against one another inevitably leads to the sacrifice of health for the sake of profit (see: hospitals). If keeping players healthy was the league’s goal, there would simply be no continuation to the season. Instead, health is merely an obstacle to the greater goal of salvaging whatever ad revenue can be cobbled together from this fractured season.

Put yourself in the shoes of the NBA Bubble Manager (which is a job I just made up). You’re in charge of keeping the bubble as sterile as possible.

Would you allow Malcolm Brogdon who has stated that after testing positive, he has plans to join his teammates in Orlando into the bubble?

How about Nikola Jokic who tested positive in Serbia but plans to return to Denver next week?

On the flip side, Avery Bradley, who was a major contributor to a contending team, has opted out of Orlando because of his son’s history with respiratory issues. Bradley was also a visible leader of the contingent of players prioritizing social change over completing the season. Will AB be lauded for his decision or vilified for not being a team player?

The season restart is a contradiction from top to bottom. You can’t say it’s about “playing or not playing” and then immediately ask if playing is a good idea. It’s not a “bubble” if numerous players in it test positive for the virus. And you can hardly frame it as taking a stand against one of our most entrenched racist institutions and then do this:

None of it makes sense. The only way out is to shut it down until the virus is under control, which is unlikely to happen any time soon in a country that has willingly neglected to prepare for a pandemic. I hope I’m wrong and everything goes fine, but I know better than to get my hopes up.

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