NBA: League Is Playing Itself By Insisting On Playing In Bubble

By Drew Stevens (@hismindonpaper)

Every controllable factor has been identified and accounted for, billions of dollars are at stake and an unsolicited blessing has been recieved from the nation’s foremost infectious disease expert.

With all this going for it, you’d think that the National Basketball Association should be gung-ho about its plans to restart and conclude its 2019-20 season. You may also think that this column is going to co-sign said plans — you’d be wrong on both counts.

There’s a vocal group of NBA players, most notable among them Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving and Los Angeles Lakers center Dwight Howard, who have a distinct fear that a resumption of play will somehow undermine the spectacular momentum for racial equality propelled by worldwide protests and goaded on by recurring police brutality that led to the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

It could be very realistic that those two, or another selection of players, decline attending the scheduled contests to take place at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex on the Walt Disney World campus in Orlando next month.

Anyone who feels that way should be free to back their commitment to social change, but it should’t be a requirement for any NBA player, regardless of race, political affiliation or willingness to rep for the culture.

Howard, in particular could be commended for even entertaining the idea — as an Los Angeles Laker he has an exceptional chance at capturing his first-ever championship — but what are we saying if we think the hearts and minds of those individuals to whom the Black Lives Matter campaign is powered by will be stopped in their tracks by the mere chance of seeing new basketball played at a time when the playoffs have never been played before?

And speaking of the potential date for Game 1 of the Finals, Oct. 13, it would seem to be an unlikely time to wrap up the unwieldy and centuries-long fight for equal rights and protection under the law for Black Americans when compared to our white compatriots.

The struggle will continue beyond this fall and anyone from the NBA — among them, LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, DeMar DeRozan, Malcolm Brogden, Enes Kanter, and Jaylen Brown — who have either been in the forefront of recent protests against police brutality or spoken out as champions of socio-political change will have in their nationally-televised games and widely distributed press conferences and interview sessions a platform with which to continue driving the conversation of social justice forward.

For that matter, NBA commissioner Adam Silver would be fine playing out the League’s statements of all sorts within a centralized location meant to accommodate the players of the 22 teams as well as a host of media representatives, all of whom will willingly document every move made in this one-of-a-kind late-summer experiment. No less a source of support than Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has expressed his pleasure with the NBA’s plans.

So, good to go, right? Not quite.

Silver and the National Basketball Players Association should reconsider ending the near three-month hiatus for much less complex, but nonetheless pressing, reasons, chief among them the still-ominous presence of COVID-19, which has taken the lives of more than 113,000 Americans.

According to a TIME Magazine analysis, half the country continues to witness a daily increase in the amount of confirmed cases while many others are experiencing a second-wave of infections after an initial bend in the curve, including potential NBA-hosting Florida, which reported record levels of new cases Sunday, on the heels of its second phase of reopening.

The details that will govern the health and safety protocols of a planned restart have yet to be ironed out, but each player involved will be tested and quarantined from his family, and the general public at-large, for a period of months.

An unmistakable sticking point is money, which plays a significant role in any decision-making process in the realm of sports. In this case money’s role is that of the potential forfeiting of more than $1 billion in salaries for the players and about $2 billion in lost revenue for the league’s owners as a consequence of a lost season, according to ESPNs Bobby Marks.

Moreover, the threat of a lockout looms large as it has been speculated that, if the players chose to sit-out the remainder of the season, the owners would invoke the force majeure clause of the current collective bargaining agreement and force renegotiation of the entire CBA by which they would have the leverage to haggle for more than the previously agreed upon 50/50 split of basketball-related income.

The league has assured those players who choose to back out of the restart plan that they can do so without fear of punishment. But the mere fact that some players are expressing concern, I think, should give owners enough reason to rethink this plan before they revert to displacing player safety with their bottom line after already erring on the side of caution for three months. To be clear, that would be a longer shot than any chucked toward the rim from half-court from the hands of Trae Young, Damian Lillard or Steph Curry with so much money at stake.

As a lifelong basketball fan — and someone who, admittedly, can riddle off the starting lineup of our lowly Chicago Bulls without a second thought while requiring a Bud Billiken Parade’s length of time to name five members of Donald Trump’s Cabinet without an assist from Google — this opinion is not one that was constructed without some degree of angst, especially considering how Father Time is seemingly bearing down on King James like an unpinned grenade in flight.

In a perfect world, I would prefer to see James, a 17-year-vet, three-time champion and my favorite player, given an opportunity to capitalize on what has been a promising season.

But in a world still searching for the means to subdue both an ongoing pandemic and generations worth of racial injustice the NBA has a potential representative place on the front-lines of two cultural battles. To accept those responsibilities while deciding a league champion pretty much on the fly may be too much to ask of even such a great organization.

Perhaps the factor deserving of deepest examination in negotiations for the continuation of play is the one over which all parties involved have, unequivocally, the most control — their own personal safety and that of those closest to them.

Drew Stevens is a writer based in Chicago

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