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Ready or Not, Here Comes the NBA

Owners approved a 22-team restart plan, meaning basketball will be back in the midst of a pandemic and civil unrest

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

As it readies a return to play, the multibillion-dollar NBA has never felt smaller. Players are marching this week for George Floyd, a black man who was killed in the street by a Minneapolis police officer while three more watched, and against a system of racist, abusive policing that exposes this country’s foundational prejudice. They are marching, really, for the right of black Americans to remain alive. It is a matter of such obvious urgency that people of all backgrounds in all 50 states have flocked together amid a pandemic, risking their own health for a reckoning long overdue.

Yet both threats continue to advance, boxing in our nation like peaceful demonstrators on a bridge. On one side is law enforcement, some with badges covered and weapons raised—the face of a system of oppression. On the other is the looming threat of the coronavirus, which has now killed more than 100,000 Americans. Our present moment is trapped in that tension. All the while, the NBA’s board of governors is planning a trip to Disney World. Topics of the day include a play-in tournament for the eighth seed, resort assignments, and whether players and coaches will be allowed to golf.

The NBA is not alone in this smallness. It would be naive to expect our more frivolous industries to power down entirely in the face of economic disaster, not to mention dangerous when more than 40 million Americans have already lost their jobs. The show goes on—if not because it must, then because the NBA’s owners decided it should. On Thursday, the league approved a plan for 22 teams to resume the season in Orlando on July 31, and picking up with eight regular-season games before the commencement of a full-fledged playoff.

To attempt this during an ongoing health crisis is one of the riskiest decisions the league has ever made. As it stands, not all of the NBA’s training facilities are open for business—in some cases due to state regulations, and in some as a result of the team’s own concern. In those facilities that have opened, guidelines dictate that only one player can shoot at a given basket using a sanitized ball, with the sole aid of a masked and gloved staffer who must remain 12 feet away at all times. This is what safe basketball looks like today. By next month, we’re to believe it will somehow allow for full-contact five-on-five.

Players will bump and push one another, pass a ball back and forth, breathe and sweat in close proximity. Then, when they go to the bench, they will reportedly sit a few seats away from their nearest teammate. Every precaution counts. The game itself, however, is an assault on whatever measures the league can muster. A bubble can only be as secure as false negatives and asymptomatic carriers allow. Those within the bubble will reportedly be tested daily, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. That means there will be thousands of tests to administer—whether individually or by group—before the NBA playoffs are through, and thus thousands of opportunities for one misleading result to challenge the integrity of the system. The league office has done its homework; procedure in the bubble will be guided by epidemiologists and other medical experts, and constructed carefully to limit exposure. It’s easy to forget that the core business of the NBA isn’t basketball, but logistics. Managing complexity is a daily requirement of league operations.

It also relies on a certainty that the pandemic makes impossible. What’s humbling—and unnerving—about the coronavirus is how much we still don’t understand. In April, it seemed that children who tested positive for COVID-19 were less likely to develop serious symptoms. By May, doctors in New York had found a new, terrifying risk associated with the virus that had left three children dead. The nature of what we’re up against is still unfurling, and what we think we know is a matter under constant revision. Viruses mutate and evolve. This one is so new to us that it collapsed our entire way of life, even after first announcing itself an ocean away. Then, as it spread throughout America, the virus traced the lines of our twisted systems to do what most destructive forces do in this country: harm black citizens at disproportionate rates.

It feels notable that the members of a predominantly black league are being asked to expose themselves to that same virus, including in ways that health officials have advised against. Players face the choice of bringing their families into that risk or living separated from them, potentially for months. Even with all the protections and treatment options of life in the bubble, this is a fraught decision.

The most effective countermeasure to the coronavirus is isolation. Playing NBA games in all their physicality disregards that truth, creating a level of risk that many gyms around the country—even those in teams’ own facilities—will not currently allow. After games, players will go back to their rooms and their families, and then back out to play against another team of players who will later go back to their rooms and their families. It’s not hard to imagine how the virus could spread. The NBA can take precautions, establish a tracing program, and do as much testing as realistically possible. Resuming play, however, means accepting the potential for devastating consequences. There is good reason to be out in the streets right now, in spite of the dangers of the virus. Is there reason enough to fly thousands of people to Orlando so that hundreds can play a sport understood to be dangerous during a pandemic?

Clearly the board of governors believes so, as does essentially every player and coach on record. There is a great deal of faith in Adam Silver and his staff to get this right and keep those in the bubble safe. “I trust the league,” said Lakers forward Jared Dudley. “I trust Adam Silver. I trust the testing they’re going to put in. They already told you we need 15,000 tests. You will get tested before every game. If you leave that bubble and you get corona, you’re out 14 days. So we’re going to bubble-wrap LeBron [James] and [Anthony Davis], we’re going to lock them in the room, we’re going to play cards all day, they can’t go nowhere. That’s how it’s going to be to finish this season.”

This is a respect earned through Silver’s measured approach on other issues, amplified in this case by the desire to believe that the bubble is safe. The assembled team owners voted for this outcome, packing in 22 teams and squeezing in eight more regular-season games so they might recoup some of their financial losses. Teams in the running for the title are eager to see their efforts through, and players at large keen on preserving their salaries. Fans, beyond looking for closure on the season, hope for some hint of their former lives. (Some of us who cover the NBA may be missing the entirety of our former lives, or at least the structure of them.) Yet so much of this undertaking is beyond the NBA as a governing body. The integrity of the bubble and the safety of everyone in it depends on the strict, sweeping acceptance of quarantine conditions. A single negligent player (or their family member) could endanger a 69-year-old coach. Any excursion off the premises could put teammates, opponents, or even hotel staff in a vulnerable position. So much depends upon the discipline of millionaires.

A bubble is fragile by nature. Even if players stick to the rules as prescribed by the league, a slip in any number of other safeguards could compromise the entire project. A reduced staff will need to train for rigid new protocols. The family and guests of players likely won’t be allowed onto the NBA campus until the start of the playoffs. In the meantime, their home cities—many of which are (1) reopening for business, and (2) have seen protestors gather by the thousands—could become hot spots for viral transmission. (Florida appears to already be well on its way.) How the NBA screens and quarantines those family members is but one trial in a gauntlet of the league’s own creation. Concern after concern, hazard after hazard. Taking responsibility for the health and care of thousands of people for months on end is the cost of resuming business.

Soon the bill will come due.