There are a ton of things that people miss during the pandemic. Eating at restaurants. Going to the movies. Pants.
However, out of all the things the American consumer is missing, sports, and specifically the NBA playoffs — which were postponed in March when coronavirus hit — come close to the top of the list.
After months of plotting and planning the NBA returns on July 30, with two main changes. The first is to supposedly keep players safe in a COVID-19 free ‘bubble’ at the Disney sports complex in Orlando and the second is to supposedly give players a platform to talk about national protests and racial injustice in this country.
The league has gone so far as to actually paint “Black Lives Matter” on the side of the basketball courts for the remainder of the season. Of course, if the NBA really cared about Black lives, they probably wouldn’t have a season at all.
Full disclosure, I miss sports more than the average person. I miss meeting up with my friends at the bar to catch the playoffs, ordering wings that I probably shouldn’t eat, and most importantly, finding an excuse to look at my phone whenever LeBron James has to make a crucial free throw.
However, NBA players are not essential workers. We don’t have to have basketball like we do grocery stores, bus drivers and doctors (although it’d be nice if essential workers had the protections being spent on athletes).
The NBA’s plan to bring back players for a truncated season and playoffs in the Disney mega-sports-complex bubble simply doesn’t sound safe, despite being tentatively endorsed by America’s most trusted doctor, Dr. Anthony Fauci, last June.
Of course, that was before 25 out of the 351 players headed to the Bubble Playoffs tested positive for COVID-19. That means roughly 7% of NBA players already have COVID and that’s before you send them down to Orlando Florida which is the second-highest hotspot behind Miami in a state that is setting records for number of infections and deaths, just had 10,000 new COVID cases in one day, that is led by a governor who won’t mandate residents to wear masks probably because he can’t figure out how to wear one himself.
The NBA insists that the “Bubble” plan will work. Players will be tested daily, employees working in the three Orlando hotels will be tested daily, entrance in and out of the Bubble will be limited and if new cases pop up once players are in Orlando there are quarantine contingencies.
Supposedly all of this will work with over 1,400 players and staff living in a series of hotels for 3 months. It’s like a mixture between The Real World and The Hunger Games. The idea that you’re going to keep a bunch of wealthy young professional athletes cooped up in Disneyland, without friends, family, and girlfriends with nothing but video games and Fyre Festival-quality hotel meals for months is insane.
There is no way the Blackest major sports league in America can claim to care about Black players when they know their plan is more of a colander than a bubble.
This week as players arrived in Orlando, NBA commissioner Adam Silver finally admitted that the NBA’s plan has flaws, and they don’t know how big an outbreak of COVID would have to be amongst players before they’d consider shutting down the league again.
Two players? A head coach? A superstar like James Harden? LeBron and Anthony Davis with a few bench players thrown in? Rest assured more players will get COVID-19 during the NBA playoffs and that is a totally avoidable problem.
Despite LeBron, the de-factor commissioner of the league, being on board with the return of basketball, many high-profile players like Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard skeptical of the plan. Others are unhappily going along in silence because the financial consequences of not going to Orlando are dire.
Players who opt-out of going out of concern for their health or loved ones can lose anywhere from 8 to 15% of their annual salary. This is on top of the 25% pay cut they all agreed to last May. If too many players opted out of attending the NBA re-start the owners threatened to tear up the collective bargaining agreement which would put everyone’s professional future in jeopardy.
What’s more, COVID is still classified as a non-sports related injury for NBA players, so unless it can be specifically proven that you contracted the disease while working as an NBA player it’s possible that part or all of your contract could be voided.
Remember that COVID doesn’t kill most people, but even young and healthy men and women have suffered respiratory, circulation and lung damage which could definitely end someone’s ability to run up and down a court for 48 minutes at a time.
Watching this new NBA start now has the same moral hazard of watching football once revelations about concussions were made public, except it’s worse because we all know what is likely to happen before tip-off. All of these Black bodies will be in danger, yet the league is bending over backward to tell us that Black lives matter because players can wear a bunch of motivational slogans on their jerseys.
That’s like letting a bunch of share-croppers wear “I have a Dream” t-shirts and thinking everything is okay.
If the NBA really cared about Black lives, they would postpone the season again and develop a plan that scales back the numbers of teams, staffers and games that are in the playoffs. They would invest additional millions of dollars into testing and treatment for the surrounding Orlando community they’ll be inhabiting for months.
They’d not dock the pay of any players or employees who choose to skip out on the Orlando COVID fest 2020, and not hold the collective bargaining agreement over players’ heads. Most importantly they’d actually model the social justice they claim to support as a league and not partner with local police departments for game security.
Of course, that would mean actually caring about Black lives and not viewing players as 40 million dollar slaves. It’s much easier to just paint a slogan on the side of the court.
Dr. Jason Johnson is a professor of Politics and Journalism at Morgan State University, a Political Contributor at MSNBC and SIRIUS XM Satellite Radio. Notorious comic book and sports guy with dual Wakandan and Zamundan citizenship.
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