Maybe some of you with very young siblings can relate, but whenever I need an innocence laden hard truth, I speak to my eight your old sister. She’s like an all-knowing oracle, sustained by a diet of dry cheerios and cherry tomatoes, suspended above any understanding of industry or viewership opportunity.
I ask her, mid braid, “Salma, you hear that the NBA will be back soon?”
She gives me a quizzical look, “but there’s coronavirus…what if Ben Smimminz gets sick or something?”
What if a franchise cornerstone gets sick or something? What if any player finds themselves exhibiting the textbook COVID indicators? Dr. Frank Hartig, a physician at the University Clinic Innsbruck in Austria, has monitored the recovery of a half dozen scuba divers demonstrating mild symptoms, only to find irreversible lung damage and irritability akin to the experiences of asthmatics. Conditions the divers will likely have to monitor and maintain for the rest of their lives. In a sport such as basketball, where lung capacity is measured by the ounce and athletes target particular muscle groups in order to manage navigating such massive bodies through space with speed, one is allowed to wonder what the ramifications would be if a player is forced into an early retirement due to chronic damage. Are they signing waivers as we speak?
Ultimately, I think the questions that we find ourselves wondering, amidst an unprecedented time in sports history, circles back to an underexplored facet of player agency and autonomy. When we think of possessing agency within the scheme of professional basketball, it tends to be a bird’s eye view of player movement pathways across America. What we don’t ponder is the agency of free will. The choice to play, or not. The choice to sit out due to injury management, or the choice to play in an orchestrated bubble through a global pandemic. You may think, “if the players fully grasp the risks involved in playing, and the NBA conjures up a way to keep locals and park maintenance safe out in Orlando…” let me interrupt you to say:
that is literally impossible.
Despite almost talking yourself into a comfortable viewing experience, the notion that the league could somehow ensure not a soul gets sick, from low wage worker to team coaching staff, is arrogant at best and dangerous at worse. The state of Florida is seeing 1000+ new cases on a daily basis. The retiree state has failed its multiple vulnerable populations during the last few months of instated quarantines throughout the developed world. The NBA’s resumption is an illusion of normalcy, and I really can’t think of a state that could need it less. There’s nothing normal about congregating at beaches with an airborne respiratory blood infection wafting through the swamp air. There’s nothing normal about lounging in restaurant bars in the midst of a 120,000 count North American death toll at the time of this write up. There’s nothing normal about playing the NBA playoffs in Disney world to salvage the remainder of a broken season.
Now, this is not to minimize basketball, which I consider to be the pinnacle of entertainment and performance art rivaled only by retro voguing and the John Wick trilogy, though I can’t help but think of whether this is really…the time. It’s as though the distracting variables keep piling up. You can’t even madlib phrases as intrusive as “global pandemic” and “socio political unrest” without seeming excessive. The viewership will be as plentiful as it’ll be tainted by the state of our world right now and It doesn’t seem fair to ask players to put on horse blinders and burst out of their stalls because of public demand— and that’s precisely it, I don’t really think there would be any subsequent uproar if the season were to be cancelled. Resumption is not for the sake of the die hard or casual viewer. The NBA, as a corporation, has a quota to meet. They see the viewership opportunities made possible by widespread unemployment and quarantine, not the clear signal to cancel and recuperate when the world is actually functioning.
Regarding professional athletes of this quality and investment, it’s important to note that on-court activity seems to be their expression of choice. Expression through capabilities and narratives constructed by fans of the sport and players themselves. From Lebron James’ journey to his 4th ring to the defending champions’ fairytale season. Far more often than not, they’re classically trained since toddlerhood; the act of ‘play’ right now could feel liberating, a theatrical demonstration of resiliency for many of them. So, of course the thought of resumption may skew tantalizing to a lot of us, but the intention to do so is ignorant of their disposition; their nature as dedicated performers, seasoned professionals and out of touch millionaires. Do we expect to collectively say no? Ha!
But, whatever. I’ll be watching and forgetting to blink whilst doing so.