Should the NBA Finish This Season?

I thought we could briefly review the current issues that are being bandied about regarding whether the NBA season should restart.  Before offering any opinion, let’s get the facts down:

-The NBA season is currently supposed to start in Orlando on or about July 30th.

The teams will all be confined to a “bubble” in Orlando and have repeated tests to avoid risk of COVID infections.  There would be no fans in this venue either.

Dr. Anthony Fauci recently said that he thought the NBA plan was “quite creative” and that the NBA “might very well be successful with it.”  Left unsaid was the elephant in the room, namely that infection risk was not zero and it’s not clear what the NBA would do if a few key players were infected or the entire NBA had to be shut down again.

-On top of all that, some players, notably, Kyrie Irving do not want to play.  Irving’s stance reportedly arises from his belief that the NBA players should be focusing on Black Lives Matter activism in the wake of the horrible killing of George Floyd and the resulting protests.  Other players, like Carmelo Anthony, have been skeptical of playing because the season has been away for so long and the prospect of being locked away from families to pay in front of empty stands (and still risking COVID) doesn’t sound great.

So, those are the basic facts and stakes.  Let’s take a look at the basic questions and try to answer them:

Do we (the fans) really need the NBA now?

Apart from the COVID and BLM issues, it has been three months since the NBA played and we are all surviving.  The need to crown a 2019-20 champion is a legitimate concern but certainly not essential.  I’m sure the NBA saw the ratings achieved by fans merely from watching old clips of Michael Jordan and the owners figure that live games would get them some real ratings and revenue.  I, personally, would definitely watch games, even in this crazy format and all the uncertainties but life would go on either way.

Does the NBA need to play (for itself)?

“Need” is a strong word but months without visibility or revenue can’t be great for the teams or the players. 

How to deal with COVID risk?

This is impossible to quantify at this point.  It’s important to understand that the data collected and understanding of how to detect COVID is still somewhat rudimentary (I can personally attest to how unreliable the testing regimen is and how frustrating it is to seek answers).  It would seem that infection risk is real (it only takes one person) but that NBA players, who are young and in great health, are not likely to have acute symptoms compared to other groups like elderly or those with certain pre-existing conditions.   It’s easiest to tell NBA players the risk of death or serious illness is low but they are the ones taking the risk and one could see why they would refuse.

Is it okay to take a timeout from the NBA for BLM?

It’s hard to really think of an analogous situation to the current social unrest and the NBA.  The most prominent historical comparison was the assassination of the Martin Luther King on the eve of the 1967-68 Conference Finals.  The NBA handled that situation as poorly as can be.  The players (76ers and Celtics) were of the opinion that the game that was set for the that day should rescheduled.  The NBA, however, gave no statement or guidance to the teams or players.  Robert Cherry wrote about the situation in “Wilt, Larger Than Life.”  According to Cherry, “[a]round 5:00 on the evening of the game, [Bill] Russell called Wilt [Chamberlain].  Both agreed the game ought to be called off but decided it was too late for the players to take it upon themselves to cancel the game….It was a league decision, and the league had not acted, except not to react.”

The players then voted as to whether or not to play.  Most players felt that cancelling the game right before tip-off would only create more problems and they reluctantly played.  Cherry pulled the reports of the game which was described as “unreal” and “devoid of emotion.”  Cherry also interviewed Leonard Koppett, who covered the game for the New York Times and Koppett said “[i]t was the eeriest, most subdued sporting event I’ve ever seen.  Everybody played hard and said ‘let’s get out of here.’”

The current situation differs from 1968 in many ways.  The Celtics and 76ers were talking about postponing a single game and now we are talking about cancelling a whole season.  BLM and racial issues will not be resolved during the 2019-20 season either way.  This position was recently expressed by Austin Rivers, who noted that you can support BLM and play basketball in a long Instagram post: “[w]e can do both. We can play, and we can help change the way black lives are lived. … Canceling or boycotting a return doesn’t do that, in my opinion. Guys want to play and provide and help change!” 

Of course, this season is on life support already.  There is a prospect of players sleepwalking through a weird postseason playing in a bubble and shut off from their families, fans, and causes they believe passionately about.

If the NBA season had not been postponed and COVID concerns not existing, Kyrie’s position would hold little sway.  Now, the COVID risk combined with the lengthy pause in the season definitely change things and there multiple legitimate reasons to refuse to play.  It seems that the best answer is that players should not be forced to play if they feel the risk is too great or they hold a deep conviction that they want to be somewhere else now. 

Those players who decline to play would not be paid or penalized and the players who want to play will play (and get paid).  This is the fairest way to resolve the split but is far from perfect.  The compromise will have unintended consequences. Rifts could emerge between the two groups of players that could be lasting.  On the more trivial side, the outcome of the playoffs will likely be given something of an asterisk (assuming they make it through without a widespread outbreak that cancels the season again). There are no satisfying answers at this point and I am not the one taking the risk.  Nevertheless, it’s worth a shot, even if no one will be completely happy at the outcome.