The NBA is attempting to navigate a minefield of unprecedented issues in an increasingly complicated world, but it’s sage advice from over 2,000 years ago that might help us all get through it.
As an NBA reporter, I’m constantly asked about the likelihood of the league’s bubble experiment working and the league actually crowning a champion in October. I continually return to the words commonly attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates:
“The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”
Sometimes the first step in approaching a complex situation is admitting to yourself and others that you don’t have the answers. NBA commissioner Adam Silver has taken a similar approach to the league’s restart plan, delaying any concrete decisions until he was forced to make them, while consulting with experts who know far more about the COVID-19 virus than he ever will. It’s this measured, humble approach that has produced the Disney bubble plan that, by most accounts, is as safe and reasonable as can be expected.
And yet, there are numerous issues that threaten the conclusion of the season, namely the safety of the players, the ethicality of using valuable resources to play a sport while coronavirus cases rapidly rise across the country, and potentially distracting its citizens from the racial and social justice issues that bear far more importance than any game.
It’s easy to view things through a binary lens — the NBA is either right or it’s wrong — but the more you delve into the concerns, the more you realize the complexity of this undertaking. Each valid argument against the restart has a reasonable, if not equally compelling, argument from the other side. Let’s take a look at some of the most prevalent issues.
Point: The NBA is putting the safety of the players, coaches, team personnel and Disney staff at risk.
This is the most prominent and pressing issue with the bubble concept. Everyone is being asked to leave their quarantine to gather around hundreds of other people, which has been proven to increase the spread of the virus. In the case of the players, they’ll be breathing, sweating and potentially spitting on each other during every single practice or game, making the danger of an outbreak possible, maybe even likely, if a single player contracts the virus.
Most young, healthy people recover from the virus relatively unscathed, but there is very little known about the long-term effects of COVID-19, with NBA doctors expressing concern about potential heart issues.
Counterpoint: The NBA has made the bubble as safe as possible, perhaps safer than participants’ home cities.
Silver consulted with infectious disease experts when devising the plan, which earned the approval of Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease. If the NBA’s bubble goes according to plan, playing games in Orlando may be safer than, say, going to the grocery store in the player’s home city.
“I’ve done my share of criticizing here and there when I thought it was necessary,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said from the Disney bubble. “But I don’t know where else you would be as safe as we are right now.”
Further, players are not required to enter the bubble if they don’t feel comfortable. They won’t be paid for the games they miss (unless they are deemed medically unfit to play), but they won’t face any punishment like fines or suspensions for opting out of the restart, as several players have chosen to do.
Point: The NBA is using valuable resources in a state where testing and hospital space are increasingly harder to obtain.
As NBC Sports’ Tom Haberstroh reported in this excellent story (I highly recommend reading the whole thing), the company which is providing the NBA with next-day results from daily COVID-19 tests for all the participants, BioReference, is simultaneously announcing a delayed five-to-seven day results window for the general public. Back in early June, when Silver announced the return plan, the ethical issues involving testing appeared to be nearing irrelevancy as states began to “flatten the curve.” The recent explosion in COVID-19 cases across the country, however, has brought back the question of whether the NBA, and other pro sports leagues, should have priority access to such prolific and swift testing.
There is also the alarming fact that hospital and ICU beds are quickly filling up in the area immediately surrounding the NBA’s Disney bubble, with dozens reportedly maxed out. If necessary, the NBA will treat any patients within the bubble at an on-site clinic, which begs the question of whether that clinic would be better served if opened to the general public.
Counterpoint: The NBA’s bubble could provide health benefits to the general public in the long-term.
The issue of testing and hospital space is probably the hardest one for the NBA to rationalize, but they are engaging in a Yale study on a saliva-based COVID-19 test that could, if successful, provide a faster, less invasive test for millions of people moving forward.
“[The Yale study] has the potential to actually speed up the testing process and address some of these backlogs but not all of them,” Dr. Angela Rasmussen, a Seattle-based virologist at the Center for Infection and Immunity at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, told NBC Sports. “In my opinion, that’s what makes the NBA’s plan beneficial and kind of overrides any ethical concerns I have over, ‘Why are using these tests for professional athletes that don’t need to play?”
According to the Health and Safety Protocol handbook the NBA distributed, the league also plans to offer community testing, though no specifics have been provided.
Point: The players are better served staying at home fighting social justice issues.
With protests over police brutality and racial discrimination at the forefront of American society, some NBA players have taken exception to the idea of resuming the season. Not only are they putting their lives at risk to entertain fans and potentially provide a distraction from social justice issues, but they’re also going to be removed from their family, friends and any local protests they might have wished to join. Nets guard Kyrie Irving and Lakers guard Avery Bradley have led a faction of NBA players questioning the value of the restart, while Bucks guard George Hill said in June that basketball was the “last thought on my mind.”
It’s a valid stance. If these players feel Black lives aren’t being valued by society at large, why would they want a league that’s approximately 75 percent Black to resume playing basketball? Perhaps the absence of Black athletes would continue to call attention to the crucial problems our country is facing.
Counterpoint: NBA games give Black athletes a platform they normally would not have.
With the spotlight on NBA games potentially beginning at the end of July and running into October, athletes will receive a lot more opportunity to get their message across than if they were at home. They won’t be able to engage in public protests, but they will have microphones in front of them on a regular basis, and the league has allowed players to wear social justice messages on the backs of their jerseys if they so choose. Basketball may seem arbitrary at a time like this, but there will be millions tuned in for any message that a player wishes to deliver.
Also, NBA players will be paid for the games that they play in Orlando, potentially giving them extra income to donate to particular causes. Spurs guard Patty Mills, for instance, is donating the entirety of his salary for remaining games, over $1 million, to Black Lives Matter Australia, Black Deaths in Custody and the We Got You Campaign.
“I’m playing in Orlando because I don’t want to leave any money on the table that could be going directly to Black communities,” Mills said.
Point: The NBA is just doing this for money.
Were it not for the substantial financial ramifications, it’s safe to say that the NBA would not be attempting to restart the season in July. The league is hemorrhaging money due to the lack of fan revenue and inability to fulfill TV contracts, and stands to lose over $1 billion if the season isn’t completed, according to some estimates. Continuing the season will allow the league to recoup at least a portion of that money.
Counterpoint: The financial losses from this season have a long-term impact on the league, its players and its employees.
The extent of the financial hit to the NBA this season has far-reaching consequences. If the season isn’t completed, some experts have estimated that next year’s salary cap could drop anywhere from $8 million to $15 million, directly affecting player salaries. So the millionaires make slightly less money, you may say, what’s the big deal?
Well, if teams are forced to start saving money, that could directly lead to laying off employees who aren’t making millions of dollars in fields like public relations, operations and event staff. On the surface, the NBA taking a huge financial loss doesn’t seem to affect the general public, but when you think of how many jobs are associated with the league and its teams, the economic consequences of not having a season could be widespread and dire.
As you can see, the problems facing the NBA, like many of the problems facing our country right now, are complex in nature. It’s important to seek out both sides of every issue, practice patience and empathy, and, if necessary, make the decision you feel is best, realizing that there will be consequences no matter what you do. As we proceed into uncharted territory with the resumption of the NBA season, here’s another Socrates quote to keep in mind:
“Every action has its pleasures and its price.”