It will be a minor miracle if, come October, the NBA ends up crowning a champion whom history will regard with enough legitimacy to grant it a place among its all-time greats. Look at the caseloads, at the curves, at the probabilities of infection and the realities of human nature, and it becomes awfully difficult to spot the lonely, little trajectory the league has charted with its plan for three months of bubble-wrapped basketball on Mickey Island. Make a list of all of the things that can possibly go wrong, and you’ll see just how precarious each new day of competition will be. It is the proverbial needle’s eye, attempting to stage a season in the midst of a society whose stress response has been blaring for four consecutive months. It is also necessary.
These are two different points, separate and distinct. The case for one might sound like a case against the other, but not only can they coexist, it is a virtual certainty that they do in the minds of commissioner Adam Silver and the 30 ownership groups that have charged him with seeing this thing through. Like the vast majority of businesses that are attempting to navigate this unprecedented storm, the NBA clearly understands that its financial health is inextricably linked with the health and safety of those it employs. To equate the league’s decision to restart its season with a dismissal of reality is to assume that it has not learned any of the lessons of the past quarter-year.
Lost amid the ongoing debates over the government’s role in shuttering business is the fact that, even in a libertarian utopia devoid of top-down intervention, economies require willing participation. It is a laughable conception to think that the great engine of American commerce would have kept on humming for these last four months if there had not been an official directive to close. We seem to forget that the NBA paved the way for the ensuing wave of shutdowns by closing its own doors in mid-March, rather than the other way around. For the league’s hardwood marketplace to remain in business, it needs to ensure a level of safety acceptable to those who will transact within. And by all accounts — most crucially those of its participants — the plan that Silver and his staff have developed meets that threshold.
“Going through all the pedantic, anal-type things about what they’re trying to do to ensure people’s safety is off the charts,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said on Wednesday. “I hold a high level of optimism. I feel like I also live in reality. I’m inherently curious about this, as we all are. … None of us would be that bold to claim this is going to be great and is going to see us through to October. I respect Adam Silver’s comment that nothing’s safe. This is a work in progress. Might it be a template for all the leagues to copy the NBA in this bubble environment? Possibly. I hold hope.”
Pragmatism does not equal flippancy, and we should be careful not to confuse the two. There will be those who struggle to see anything but the latter in the insistence on the part of our professional sports leagues that their shows must go on. As Malcolm Jenkins recently said, athletes are not essential workers, and it is understandable if people see a sort of backwardness in our sports returning before, say, our schools. But that is another argument for another forum that affords more space than we have at our disposal. If our sports’ refusal to yield center stage in the midst of a pandemic seems backward, it is because our society is backward and society’s structures are far too ingrained to expect any radical accommodation now.
But this isn’t about sports, it is about business, and all of us have played a role in building a society that demands that business go on. We can wish it were another way, but wishes don’t pay the bills. It was never realistic to think that our politicians would figure out a way that we could shut down society until we could reopen without any degree of risk. Thus, it was always going to fall on us as producers and consumers to figure out how to make our lives go on.
Given this reality, professional sports are as well-positioned as any industry to chart the way forward. And if you are not rooting wholeheartedly for the NBA to succeed, you are dramatically underestimating the challenge that the rest of this year will pose. Economics is a dismal science, largely because it is a science of human behavior, and to ignore its fundamentals is just as foolish as ignoring the science of public health.
We are at an inflection point in our battle with this disease. This next quarter-year may well determine whether we can both mitigate a pandemic and avoid setting our economy back by 25 years. Students will need to return to school. Shoppers will need to return to stores. And, yes, sports will need to be played.
It remains to be seen whether that last goal is realistic. The reopening of leagues across the rest of the world offers some encouraging signs. Yet America is a separate battleground in the fight against COVID-19, and the challenge it faces in reopening is evident when viewed through the prism of the NBA. While a wide-scale outbreak and/or serious hospitalizations are the most-obvious concerns from the standpoint of safety and ethics, even a single positive asymptomatic test has the potential to throw all of the league’s carefully laid plans into disarray. Imagine the implications if a positive test were to remove from a playoff series a star of the caliber of LeBron James, or Kawhil Leonard, or Joel Embiid. At that point, would it really be possible for a television audience or the players themselves to believe that the 2019-20 NBA title was as great of a prize as the sport needs it to be?