In the midst of most national crises, there comes a moment when it no longer becomes clear whether people are acting out of actual conviction or if they are matching the actions of everyone else.
Take Thursday, for example. We were coming off a 48-hour window in which both the Flyers and the Sixers had decided that it was prudent to pack an arena with tens of thousands of fans, and in which tens of thousands of fans thought it prudent to pack an arena. Before the next sundown, virtually every sport was canceled for the foreseeable future.
Did it need to happen this way? I don’t know.
Take, for instance, the NCAA, which had initially planned on proceeding by playing its tournament basketball games without any fans. This is one of those rare situations where I actually think the organization was doing the right thing by attempting to allow these teams to play.
What they say in the commercials is true — the vast majority of those who play in the tournament are not going to go pro. For most of them, the games that were just canceled would have forever existed among the most poignant memories of their lives. Perhaps not as deeply as with fans in the stands, but I can guarantee you that a vast majority of those players would have voted to play.
Yet I’m sure the NCAA imagined the criticism that would have ensued had it been the only major sports league to carry on with the games, particularly if the coronavirus had ended up sweeping through locker rooms.
It’s funny how it works. The decision that nobody has yet made is always the hardest, until everybody makes it, and then not making it becomes the hardest.
One thing that all of us should realize by now is that, in times of pandemic, this is a beneficial phenomenon. COVID-19 might not be the disease that all of us imagined would need to be at the heart of this level of mobilization. This is not Outbreak or Contagion. Nobody is bleeding from their orifices.
I was walking past a couple of staffers at the Wells Fargo Center on Wednesday night and overheard one of them say, “It’s just the flu on steroids.” And he’s mostly correct.
But when you look at the probabilities, and the multipliers, and the curves, you realize that the lead-up to a breakdown in social order can be far more banal than the result.
Here in the United States, the ample majority of us live lives so convenient that we can spend the duration of them without once having thought about things like supply chains and maximum capacities. When we need something, it is there. Like magic, with money.
We do not consider the fact that our infrastructure, our inventory, our daily routines are predicated on a homeostasis that can actually be disrupted. When we need hydration, there will be fluids. When we need to blow our nose, there will be tissue paper. When we need go to an emergency room, there will be a bed.
When there aren’t things we thought would be there, that’s when things go from bad to worse. We live in a country that starts fights when Walmart runs out of discount big-screen televisions. Imagine a four-on-one fight for a hospital bed.
Avoiding the bottleneck is how to beat it, and that makes awareness the most important, even if it costs a disproportionate amount of convenience. A critical mass of the population needs to treat a disease with a certain level of sincerity in order to beat it. Judging by the actions of our sporting heroes over the last 24 hours, it appears that we are there.
But that also means that a lot of us have a lot of hours to kill, and there are only so many hours of Netflix. So, I hope that you will grant me permission to take a break from our vigilance and turn the discussion back toward sports.
After a Wednesday night in which the NBA season went from business as usual to yanking players off the court, the lingering question was what lies next, both for the league and for the Sixers. While I’ve spent most of the day attempting to figure out my optimal coronavirus food strategy — takeout, grocery, or delivery — I’ve also managed to settle on a couple of conclusions about the path forward:
1. I think it is logical to assume that the NBA will be back this season, and that the playoffs will be conducted in their entirety, and that is neither as naive nor as cynical as it sounds. Look, I can be as critical of the financial class as any rabble-rouser, but the fact of the matter is that businesses are a net positive for society, and very few of them can withstand a quarter in which they lose 90% of their revenue, in particular a quarter that represents a disproportional amount of their yearly gross. That is what would happen to the NBA if it simply called game on its season.
Consider: in 2018, the Warriors reportedly averaged roughly $12 million in revenue per home playoff game for a total of $130 million for their entire postseason run. That year, Forbes valued the franchise at $3.1 billion. If the Warriors’ value is 20 times cash flow, that would make their home playoff revenue nearly equivalent to their annual cash flow.
Also consider that the NBA’s national television contract is close to $3 billion per season, and the fact that a quarter of its nationally televised games are in the postseason. This is nothing more than for-instance math, but you should get the picture. It is difficult to envision a world in which the NBA does not find a way to generate at least some fraction of those dollars.
2. If the postseason does take place in some form, the Sixers will almost certainly be a better team after a month of no basketball than they would have been had the season progressed as normal. Four hours before the NBA season was postponed, we learned that Ben Simmons would miss at least three more weeks with a back injury. It might not be accurate to say that the delay would give him a full extra month to recover, but it certainly increases the probability that he will be on the court for the playoffs.
Furthermore, and I say this with my tongue as far out of my cheek as possible, the Sixers could clearly use the practice. That’s not something they’d have the benefit of had the season proceeded as scheduled. If we’re still looking at the postseason as a referendum on Brett Brown’s viability as head coach, this can only help the process. He’s going to have an opportunity to fine-tune whatever he’d like. Conditioning will be a concern. But who knows. Why can’t the NBA arrange for teams to face each other in closed gym scrimmages?
The moral of the story is very much the same as the one we started with at the jump. Life isn’t perfect. Stuff happens. Back injuries, concussions, worldwide pandemics.
Part of the reason we love sports is that they are played by humans, and sports at their base level is humans overcoming obstacles.
One of the heartening things about this entire ordeal has been the reactions of the players and coaches and executives. Instead of protest or despair, we’ve seen a general acceptance that we’re confronting something we must hurdle.
Ours is a species of resilience. We’d be the dinosaurs without us. And there’s nothing like a pandemic to remind us that we’re all in it together.