Bursting the Bubble

By Derick Beresford
Illustration by Darryl Westly & Alana Tsui

The NBA kicked off a nationwide lockdown on March 11, 2020 when it decided to suspend its season after Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz tested positive for COVID-19. You read that correctly. It was a sports league, and not our government, that helped open our eyes to the severity of this pandemic. The rest of the major sports leagues quickly followed suit, resulting in the postponement of MLB’s Opening Day and the cancellation of the NCAA Final Four tournament. Soon after came shelter-in-place mandates as the country took a collective timeout.

In the early days of quarantine, leaders stressed the importance of “flattening the curve” so we could all get back to normal. In the months since, we’ve not only experienced the deadly effects of this virus but also a groundswell of support in the fight against white supremacy and systemic inequality sparked by the inhumane killing of George Floyd by the hands of four police officers in Minneapolis.

There’s no more returning to normal. That reality doesn’t work.

Sports, broadly considered, has long been a key component in rebooting communities. Thirteen months after the devastating damage of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, the Superdome reopened in 2006 for an NFL game featuring the hometown Saints and their division rival Atlanta Falcons. That 23-3 victory invigorated New Orleans. They even built a statue dubbed “Rebirth” to commemorate the biggest play of the game. That’s how much it meant to the city.

In Dave Chapelle’s recent special 8:46 he referenced how Kobe Bryant’s 60-point walk-off game in 2016 gave him hope during a similarly challenging time in this country. Black people were being murdered by police and police were being murdered in retaliation. I’m not naïve to believe sports solved that issue, but, for a moment at least, it provided a point of connectivity that brought us all together.

The sports as connector narrative, however, may never face a greater test than our current pandemic. On June 4th the NBA officially announced that it would be returning on July 30th.  After months of modeling and reports of funky pool-play tournaments, the league and the NBA Players Association agreed to a 22-team format where all teams and personnel would be quarantined at Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Florida. This “bubble” approach is meant to be a best-of-both-worlds scenario. We get basketball back and, by coupling frequent testing with access restrictions, we also get a safe environment for players.

The initial excitement has now been met with hesitation. Led by Kyrie Irving, who is also the Vice President of the NBA Players Association, players questioned whether returning to play was the right thing to do. Would NBA games be a distraction from the strides we are making in the community? With limited forms of entertainment available, this global uprising has been impossible to ignore. Is now really the time to rehash Jordan vs LeBron GOAT debates?

Progress is not made without individual sacrifice. Muhammad Ali was stripped of his heavyweight championship belt as he boycotted the Vietnam War. He wasn’t able to fight for three years at the peak of his career. Colin Kaepernick hasn’t played a snap in the NFL after he began protesting police brutality in this country by kneeling during the national anthem. These men are viewed as heroes now but that wasn’t the case in the moment.

These are individuals doing what they feel is right to bring about change. Leagues have never been willing to take such monumental stands as they answer only to the bottom line.

We now sit at the culmination of the Player Empowerment Era. “Shut up and dribble” was a impetuous slight easy enough to scoff at, but is now understood as a universally and deeply idiotic take. Professional athletes are members of this society and have realized the power of their platforms to amplify the issues that concern them. They are now using their voice to apply pressure to the leagues. 

Professional athletes are members of this society and have realized the power of their platforms to amplify the issues that concern them. They are now using their voice to apply pressure to the leagues.

Former NBA player and friend of George Floyd, Stephen Jackson, has been on the front lines of the fight to defund the police and end systemic oppression. LeBron James, a longstanding player-activist, has also been a key organizer in the fight, launching the More Than A Vote initiative to help expose and stop voter suppression so that Black people can truly make their presence felt at the polls. Both have different views on the need to return to the court.

Athletes’ profiles are huge, mostly because they are in our homes nightly. Sports broadcasting rights have kept the cable model on life support and there’s no doubt that the NBA’s return will garner record-breaking ratings. That’ll be a large platform for the players to continue the conversation.

The NBA, under Commissioner Adam Silver, has been the most progressive major league in the country. In 2014, they banned Donald Sterling from the league after a racist recording surfaced. After watching the NFL completely fumble the rising anthem protests in 2016, the NBA proactively reached out to players to find an amicable solution. The 2017 NBA All-Star Game was moved from Charlotte, North Carolina, based on the league’s objection to the North Carolina House Bill 2–the controversial “bathroom bill” that allowed for legal discrimination towards the LGBTQIA+ community.

We should expect the same proactive, solution-oriented approach that has become a staple of Silver’s tenure as Commissioner. The NBA has already approved the use of personalized jerseys that would allow players to replace their names on the back with phrases such as “Black Lives Matter” and “I Can’t Breathe.” If the anthem is aired, I don’t think I would be misplacing my faith that there will be coordinated displays of unity along the lines of the recent “The Truth Is” spot the league produced to support Black Lives Matter. There is pressure, expectation, and precedent for the league to find the proper middle ground that allows them to make a bold statement without stopping the show from going on.

Can the NBA bubble withstand the plethora of pins aiming to collapse the dream? As they seem to tackle one issue, others arise. The health of the players is still a major concern. The state of Florida has relaxed their “stay-at-home” mandates and has since replaced New York as the epicenter of the American pandemic. Several players, including Avery Bradley of the Los Angeles Lakers and Trevor Ariza of the Portland Trailblazers, have exercised their option to not partake in the bubble. Are the financial gains worth jeopardizing the health of players and personnel by gathering in Orlando?

As a NBA fan, I’m itching for its return. As a Black man, I understand the dilemma. The NBA is looking to create a bubble to keep its players safe while salvaging some of the millions of dollars in lost revenue from the postponement. In a time where our collective conscious bubbles have been burst and our eyes opened to the harsh realities of this country, the NBA’s aspiration may prove to be fruitless. 

People want to retreat to their respective bubbles and have sports return. If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that nothing goes as planned. The bubble is bound to burst.︎