Why it’s ok to not feel ok watching the NBA right now
“Nothing is intolerable that is necessary.” — Jeremy Taylor, The Rule and Exercises of Holy Dying
Somewhere in the heart of Orange County, where the borders of reality and fantasy meet to form a plastic sheen that coats the Magic Kingdom, a bubble stands alone in it’s defiance to all that is necessary and tolerable. In an act of rebellion in the face of a global pandemic, Machiavellian orchestrators with tongues dipped in silver and gold have taken action to give us, the feeble masses, a ray of light in the long dark: NBA Basketball.
At least, kind of.
So far the bubble, having created a world as insulated and removed from the reality of COVID-19 as it’s namesake would imply, has presented a version of the NBA that is equally out of touch.
There’s something ethereal about a professional court surrounded by carpet like it’s an AAU tournament. When “Whole New Game” and “Black Lives Matter” are branded across surfaces like they’re the latest Gatorade campaign, it feels more calculated than genuine. And while there’s something to be said about performative activism in the face of NBA’s recent human rights controversy, the players in the bubble have, by and large, been using their national platform to spread genuine awareness. It’s not perfect, but like so much in the history of the NBA, the players are leading the way while they wait for the league to catch up.
While they wait, they can look forward to being cheered on by isolated fans watching from the sidelines like voyeuristic overlords from a dystopian nightmare reality.
Or maybe all of this isn’t that complicated, and as a New York legend put it.
The Summer League aesthetic aside, there’s a lot that’s… off about the NBA bubble. From 1-man chants, to commentary with the grace of a bunch of senior citizens on a Zoom call, the TL has had more than enough fuel to flame this cash grab.
That’s not to say that there haven’t been some bright spots.
Seeing players straight from the “Whose mans is this?” generator going off has had 2nd-round draft pick fans collectively losing their shit. Becky Hammon coaching the Spurs while Pop helped out on the sidelines was decidedly awesome to watch. (On a side note, the fact that Jason Kidd almost got another head coaching job before Becky Hammon has even been offered one should see everyone in the Knicks front office tried in the Hague.)
But despite the occasional bouts of joy, it’s been impossible to parse the good from the overwhelming sense that all of this shouldn’t be happening.
As Washington National’s reliever Sean Doolittle so poignantly put it, “Sports are like the reward of a functioning society”, and our society has been anything but well-functioning. As a country, we haven’t been able to form any unified response to combat COVID-19. Despite months of quarantining, none of this has been earned.
Everyday, US citizens are dying preventable deaths, all while millions of Americans are about to have the rug pulled out from under them when the CARES Act’s unemployment stipend ends this week. Any effort that has been made to flatten the curve has been wiped out by the rise in cases over the past month. We have not earned the return of sports as a society, and yet we’re supposed to watch this facsimile like it’s a valid reward for a job well done?
Outside of the return of sports being about as deserving as a gold star for , there’s an argument to be made that the bubble is actively negligent.
With the NFL recently announcing that they would be using BioReference Labs to conduct their COVID-19 testing for players and staff, they became the third league to utilize the lab’s testing services, behind the NBA and MLS. BioReference already provided comprehensive testing to many major healthcare providers throughout the country before the pandemic, but has established itself over the past few months as one of the premier COVID-testing companies in the country, recently winning a contract with the CDC to perform nationwide antibody testing.
Outside of Orlando, other parts of the country are still struggling to receive adequate testing with efficient response times. Meanwhile, thousands of tests are being used in the bubble every week to determine if a player can practice in the afternoon. As The Athletic’s Shams Charania tweeted, consecutive testing rounds have shown no new players testing positive.
It’s apparently a sign that the NBA bubble works, so maybe the MLS, NFL and MLB’s iterations will work too. But there’s a world outside of the bubble that is suffering. A world that is dying and screaming at the people in power, begging them to save them — or if not, then to at least stop negligently murdering them.
So is there a way to reconcile with the bubble? Is it possible to put aside the personal risk players and staff are taking on for our entertainment?
It’s hard to come to any definitive answer on that. Football players whittle away at their health every time they step on the field. Is it hypocritical to enjoy watching them play every Sunday? Yet equating long-term damage accumulated over a career to the immediate effects of a potentially fatal respiratory illness feels murky at best.
On a personal level, I stopped watching football a few years ago because of an inability to reconcile my visceral knowledge of the damage the game does to its players with the enjoyment I got from watching it. But comparing my feelings then to my feelings now is more complex. While football players have to retire to avoid this risk, most basketball players will have a career if they opt out of the bubble.
Luke Kuechly retired from football before the age of 30 due to the repeated damage he sustained in his career. When he walked away, the football world was forced to reflect on what he said in 2017 in regards to the physical toll of the game:
“At what point do you tolerate it, and at what point is it enough?”
The NBA players in the bubble are taking a similar, if not more immediately deadly risk, in playing today. Yet for players like Avery Bradley, who have decided to walk away, there will be basketball later.
On the other hand, there are players like Jamal Crawford, who at 38 might see the bubble as a last chance at participating in the league. Does this make their decision to opt in to the bubble anymore justified?
For myself and a lot of my colleagues who have staked our careers on the lives of these players, it’s hard not to feel like vultures, watching with bated breath as this season limps on.
Should energy be devoted to rifling through one’s ethical cupboard in search of something to make all this easier to swallow?
Or is it easier to just shut up and watch them dribble?