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NBA

The NBA Is Back, At All Costs

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - DECEMBER 18: A general view inside TD Garden during the preseason game between the Boston Celtics and the Brooklyn Nets on December 18, 2020 in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The NBA season starts tonight, less than three months after the previous one ended. If you’re a sports fan who has been attempting to mark time through the dulling gloom of the coronavirus pandemic, then today might look like something of a milestone. The first sports league to call it quits due to the pandemic is now back for its second season of the COVID-19 era. And look how far we’ve come.

It is not particularly insightful to point out that fewer than 50 Americans had been killed by the coronavirus when the NBA postponed its season back in March, and that there are now over 326,000 dead on the day of the league’s return. Nor is it revelatory to remark on the madness of a league, just a few months removed from calling everything off over one player testing positive and touching some voice recorders, returning to action now while the entire country is a blazing COVID-19 hotspot. But there are times when one feels compelled to state the thuddingly obvious, if only because the obvious is so crazy-making.

Not only is the NBA returning at a time when the coronavirus is as rampant and deadly in this country as it has ever been, it is not even bothering with an elaborate bubble this time around. Teams will be playing in their home arenas, traveling around the country, and adhering to the sorts of pandemic protocols that did very little to stop the NFL season from devolving into one long, rolling outbreak. What’s going to happen when half of an NBA team’s rotation tests positive for the virus? We’re probably going to find out.

As nuts as this all seems, the question of how the NBA went from exercising such caution in March, to going through incredible logistical pains in order to resume playing in July, to just getting on with business as usual today isn’t all that hard to answer. First there are the material concerns, which have seemingly convinced both the owners and the players that canceling this season, or even just delaying its start for another month, would bring disastrous financial consequences. Equally as important, however, are the cultural shifts that have happened in this country over the last nine months, which have shown the NBA exactly what can be gotten away with.

The NBA is not the first or most powerful American institution to put its own material interests ahead of any moral obligations, and anyway those obligations ceased to exist at some point on our journey to the virus’s latest and highest peak. What responsibilities are even left to be upheld or applied in a country that has so fully, so unequivocally surrendered itself to a deadly virus? There’s an urge to hold the NBA accountable, sure, but who is even left to hold them accountable to? What are you gonna do, call on the gerontocratic death cult that runs this country and ask them to get these damn sports leagues under control?

If nothing else, tonight’s commencement of the NBA season should forever disabuse all of us of the notion that a sports league can ever be relied on to act like anything other than what it is. All the leagues have taken their turns, with varying degrees of success, at playacting as cautious, measured organizations just trying to do what’s best for everyone involved. But we’re through one full cycle now, and at the beginning of the second the NBA is at least doing us the favor of ceasing with the theatrics and brand positioning. The NBA is just machinery, and tonight it will begin doing all it was ever really designed to do: put games on television for the sake of securing revenue. To expect it to be anything else, to wish for it to function as some sort of civic good guided by ethical principles, would be like wishing for a smokestack to start pumping clean air into the atmosphere.

It’s clear now that the NBA only ever embarked on its bubble project because 1) Adam Silver never misses a chance to reinforce the NBA’s reputation as America’s most progressive sports league and 2) the owners didn’t think that Americans, who were just starting to understand how deadly the coronavirus is, would stand for a less cautious approach. But that was several political capitulations and rotten culture-war developments ago, and now it’s clear that Americans will in fact stand for all sorts of brazen disregard of health and safety, and they’ll do it from atop a growing pile of bodies.