And Now It Begins for Who Knows How Long

As the rest of the sports world collapses and the rest of the state collapses around it, the NBA Bubble will tip off today in Florida. It’s probably a bad idea, but when was the last time anything felt good?

I admit I’m conflicted and borderline ashamed to be excited about watching basketball again. The entire premise of live sports during a pandemic that our country– the only developed country to still be getting its ass kicked by this disease– has completely failed to protect its vulnerable populations from is morally and ethically vexing. The distraction is welcomed, but how distracting can it possibly be when the spectre of coronavirus hangs over all proceedings? An empty arena, a benched Lou Williams, the sounds of the game no longer drowned out by screaming fans: all reminders of How We Got Here and distractions from the distraction itself. It will be fun to hear Carmelo Anthony yell “fuck outta here, I got it” on rebounds in startling clarity. It will not be fun when the first player or coach or team employee gets sick. Someone will get sick. I’m no longer sure how many of us won’t.

The competition feels secondary to the spectacle. There are interesting storylines to follow, certainly. Which teams lost momentum during the hiatus, which players improved, who opted to fall out of game shape, which version of the Sixers will show up, can the Rockets ever win a decisive game, and on and on. All the things that Stephen A. Smith has been screaming at Max Kellerman about since last October will be screamed about anew, and what a relief that will be for the people reading the closed captioning in whatever waiting room of an “essential” business has left the TV on ESPN. There will be hordes of media members anxious to resume a state of normal coverage, going out of their way to treat each and every storyline as if it is uninterrupted. It will be important to note which people do so, and then to track how their level of access increases relative to their willingness to treat this as another wondrous accomplishment by the NBA. 

This is not to suggest the NBA has done a bad job. The bubble approach appears to be the only way any of this will work. Baseball didn’t even make it a week before its first major fiasco that might jeopardize the entire season. It’s hard to imagine how the NFL does any better, particularly considering the value the league has historically placed on human life. If any of this is going to work, the leagues embracing a walled-garden approach are probably the only ones that will have modest success stories to tell.

But evaluating it on its own merits seems shortsighted. What defines the “success” of a league restart during a pandemic that is still claiming hundreds of lives per day? Is it a lack of an outbreak? A successful finish to the season? A comfortable environment for players who may have to adjust to this being the only way they can play professionally for money for the foreseeable future? How far do we have to go down the list before “enjoyable basketball” even enters into the equation of how we define success for the NBA Bubble?

I’m not sure I care. I can’t tell if anyone cares about that specifically, or if the focus is still rightly on the broader topic of a failed state that is forcing the hand of private enterprise through its inability to contain the virus or provide the financial support necessary to make this all moot. There’s an emerging narrative that plays out on Twitter seemingly once per day where a major media member– normally one directly contracted with one of the leagues, or one that specializes in drumming up a narrative of persecution from the ashes of irrelevance– asks whether the public is rooting for Coronavirus to win and for sports to fail. The premise is absurd (nobody is anti-sports, they’re anti-death and the avenues that enable the pandemic to claim more lives more easily), but it does reveal a key problem with the modern landscape of sports business, sports media, and the relative lack of power one has to impede the other. Most of the good outlets are closed.

The ones that remain open are the ones willing to play nice with the major sports leagues (or the ones outright owned by the leagues and their broadcast partners). But, even if independent media still existed, it wouldn’t make a difference, and likely never has. We’re all on the billionaire wave, powerless to swim against its current, and the only thing that’s changed is that it’s become more apparent, more brazen, more nihilistic. There will always be hordes of social and professional climbers willing to ride the wave and look out for their own interests instead of fighting for the interests of others.

There’s perhaps no better recent illustration of this than former replacement level enforcer and current ESPN talking head Kendrick Perkins bullying Joel Embiid in early July for worrying about his health and safety. A man who gets paid to comment on the NBA for a network that has been starved for ad revenue that will come pouring in during a restart is questioning the manhood of Embiid (and by extension anyone who hesitates to join the Bubble), in service of making sure that the revenue keeps coming in for the league’s wealthiest stakeholders.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s where everything stands right now, NBA or otherwise.  Rational thinking about life and death is being abandoned in favor of “getting everything back on track,” whatever the hell that even means in a post-pandemic society.  Bubble cynics aren’t rooting against the NBA, or sports, or the containment of the virus. We’re rooting against the status quo. We’re rooting against wealthy people putting on a display for profit and acting like it’s a public service. 

It doesn’t matter, anyway. We’ll keep yelling while they continue to get their way. Evictions should be starting soon. The federal government is taking thousands of dollars worth of unemployment insurance off the table for families. Our kids will be back in school in September, with the Bubble concluding shortly thereafter around October 12th, assuming everything stays on schedule. The virus will continue to spread, ravaging whatever way of life we had and furthering wealth inequality, racial injustice, and the collapse of the social safety net. At least the game will be on, I guess.

Casey Taylor is a writer living and working in Pittsburgh. You can find his bad posts on Twitter.

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