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The NBA is trying to thread a needle with an increasingly shaky hand.
The reservations we had about resuming the 2019-20 season during the coronavirus pandemic have been amplified by a social justice movement that has players split on whether or not playing basketball best serves the cause, all while the league moves full steam ahead on a reopening plan full of concerns.
Brooklyn Nets superstar Kyrie Irving raised his hand, partnering with Los Angeles Lakers guard Avery Bradley and others to coordinate a call that gave voice to roughly 20 percent of the league’s players. They discussed all the issues you might expect, health and safety among them. Ultimately, Irving made clear his opposition to resuming the season, citing a desire to combat systemic racism in his community.
And Irving has been vilified for his stance by a range of prominent NBA voices, including current and former players. Matt Barnes suggested Irving was “bulls---ing,” and Kendrick Perkins called the All-Star point guard a “distraction” from the racial injustice that continues to plague the country amid protests.
Elsewhere, Stephen A. Smith implied Irving was using social activism “as an excuse not to show up to work,” and ESPN reported “Irving seems to be relishing the clash” with the many superstars who left him off a call on which they unanimously supported resuming the season. LeBron James was among them, preferring the global stage that a return to play provides as a platform for supporting anti-racism causes.
“As history shows, leaders sometimes become self serving and forget the people that they are supposed to represent,” Los Angeles Lakers center Dwight Howard said in a statement to The Athletic, appearing to align himself more with Irving than James in questioning the system. “Some leaders even use fear and intimidation to make sure they serve their own agendas, while forgetting the feelings of their people. ...
“As radical as Kyrie may sound, he is 100 percent correct,” he added. “We are no longer slaves, so every man has a right to transparency in order to make sound decisions. And as Avery said, in the decisions we make, be sure we are thinking of everyone collectively and not moving based off selfish agendas.”
If Irving is being ostracized for daring to question the NBA’s return during a pandemic and worldwide social unrest — the likes of which people have not experienced in generations — how much does that serve to suppress the voices of lower-profile players who might be hesitant to return? There is enormous pressure from both a financial and communal standpoint for non-superstars to fall in line.
Keep in mind that ESPN also has a vested interest in the NBA’s return, as do all players, especially James, who will enter the playoffs as a favorite to win his fourth championship and further his legacy.
Players who do not report for the remainder of the season will not be paid in their absence. However, players on the eight lottery teams not invited to participate will be paid, as will injured players, including Irving. At least half of the 22 teams resuming the season have no chance of winning a championship, which should worry the NBA as far as quality of competition and unnecessary risk are concerned.
There is a legitimate debate to be had about the optics of Black players, many of whom have been on the frontlines of nationwide protests, convening to entertain the masses at serious risk both to their health and of distracting from their social movement, and credit to Irving for having that conversation.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver straddled the fence on this issue in an interview with ESPN, suggesting basketball is capable of distracting its audience from COVID-19 while not distracting from social justice.
“For us, we feel this is what we do,” Silver said during the network’s Return to Sports special on Monday night. “We put on NBA basketball. We think that for the country it’ll be a respite from enormous difficulties people are dealing with in their lives right now, and I also think in terms of social justice issues it’ll be an opportunity for NBA players in the greater community to draw attention to these issues.”
Silver is not necessarily wrong. I even wrote about the NBA’s opportunity to become a leading voice in the social justice movement while conducting a condensed season in the months leading up to the presidential election. But there is a flip side to that coin that Bradley succinctly expressed to ESPN.
“Regardless of how much media coverage will be received, talking and raising awareness about social injustice isn’t enough,”’ Bradley told ESPN. “Are we that self-centered to believe no one in the world is aware of racism right now? That, as athletes, we solve the real issues by using our platforms to speak?
"We don’t need to say more,” he added. “We need to find a way to achieve more. Protesting during an anthem, wearing T-shirts is great, but we need to see real actions being put in to the works.”
The players’ coalition that Irving and Bradley established is reportedly still awaiting word on how far the NBA is willing to go to meet their expectations, which include owners’ financial support of social justice causes, greater representation in management positions and partnerships with Black-owned businesses.
What we do know already is how the NBA will look like if it returns as expected on July 30 in Orlando, Florida. Multiple outlets reported in depth on a 100-plus-page document the league sent to teams on Tuesday outlining its health and safety plan for hosting more than 300 players at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World Resort, including the hotels where every team will stay and daily schedules for players mapped down to the hour. The consumption of that news did no favors to the argument that an unprecedented “Real World”-style sporting event will not distract from societal issues.
In addition to security concerns that may arise from everyone knowing where and when all players could be each minute of every day, the NBA’s rigid health and safety protocol raises several more questions. Players will reportedly be tested “regularly,” which may not translate to the daily testing we once expected. Meanwhile, the bubble will feature Disney employees who reportedly will not be subjected to the same level of testing, as well as people providing personal services from haircuts to pedicures. Some sponsors will even reportedly be able to attend games, which seems like the least necessary risk of all.
Players can begin hosting a rotating guest list at hotels following the first round of the playoffs. The Walt Disney World amusement park is also scheduled to begin its phased reopening to the public on July 11.
According to The Athletic, players may have “team-sponsored outings (restaurants, boating, bowling, fishing, golfing), access to NBA Experience, Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Disney’s Wild Africa Trek.” Players cannot otherwise leave the bubble, unless they want to subject themselves to a mandatory 10-day quarantine, and their peers can report suspected violations of the regulations on an anonymous hotline.
There are all sorts of activities available that appear to contradict various safety measures. Players reportedly cannot have caddies on the golf course or share golf balls, but they can go to the barber and play pingpong against each other. They can play cards together, so long as they throw out the cards at the end. Coaches in the front row do not need to wear masks, but coaches seated in the second row do.
And we have yet to get to the most pressing health concerns: Not only will players be at increased risk of injury in a condensed season, they are playing a contact sport that puts them in close proximity to teammates and opponents at practices and in games. All of this is occurring in a county that is seeing a significant rise in coronavirus cases since the state reopened its economy before most others.
This increasingly feels like it is not a matter of if the NBA can pull this off without incident, but just how significant that incident will be. Whether any of it is worth it is at least a question Irving wants answered by everyone, not just the superstars and owners who have the most at stake if this season never ends.
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