Is now the right time to bring back the NBA?

The impact of a return to play on Black Lives Matter and the spread of COVID-19 remains unclear

The NBA's return to play is dividing players and fans.
Credit: 
Klutch Sports Instagram

The NBA’s plan for returning to play has proven to be no simple mission.

On June 3, the NBA announced its plan for 22 of its 30 teams to return in a ‘bubble’ environment in Orlando, Florida, where professional sports have been deemed an “essential service.” With COVID-19 and social justice issues taking the globe by storm, many players and members of the NBA have different—and often opposing—mindsets. 

Whether it’s fear of COVID-19, concerns about the implications for social justice, a drive for the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy, or some combination, players’ views are now clashing regarding the league’s decision to return to play.

The NBA has given players the option to opt out of participating in the remainder of the season. Los Angeles Lakers key piece Avery Bradley is the most notable opt-out so far. July 1 is the hard deadline for any players to let the NBA know they won’t be playing. 

Meanwhile, on June 26, Florida reported 8,942 new cases of coronavirus, a new daily record. 

That same day, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver held a conference call and answered various questions about the safety and effectiveness of the bubble environment, which entails frequent COVID-19 testing, self-isolation, and approval to leave. 

Life on the Orlando campus won’t exactly be purgatory, though. The league will be hosting movie screenings, DJ sets, boating, bowling, fishing, and golf. Barbers, manicurists, and pedicurists will also be available. And, a limited number of players, media members, executives, league personnel, and sponsors will be able to attend games. 

Silver said significant spread of COVID-19 within the bubble could lead the league to stop play again but in the meantime, there will be daily virus testing on the premises.

Despite precautions, it feels like every other day a new NBA player tests positive with the virus. 

The NBA and National Basketball Players Association released a statement on June 26 reporting that 16 players tested positive for the virus. 

While the global pandemic remains a main deterrent to returning to play, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and protests across the United States are making the return even more contentious.

In a league where 81.1 per cent of players are Black, supporting BLM is of primary importance.

When it comes to the best way to accomplish this, players are seemingly divided into two camps. 

On one hand, players like Kyrie Irving of the Brooklyn Nets and Lou Williams of the Los Angeles Clippers believe a return to play would take away the spotlight from social justice issues. 

"We are fighting for a radical change. Sports has been a healing factor, there we agree. In this climate [...] it's a distraction. […] You're dying to get back in the house and drink a beer and watch us hoop opposed to being outside fighting for your equality,” Williams wrote in a response to a comment on Instagram.

On the other, some players like LeBron James believe a return to play would only amplify the BLM movement. James’ belief is that playing won’t detract from his ability to inspire change off the court. 

The gargantuan platform the NBA provides could bring increased attention to BLM, especially with it being one of the only soon-to-be-active live sports. But refusing to play might make an even more powerful statement and avoid detracting from media attention that’s currently dedicated to vital social justice work. 

It’s difficult to say what the right move is—ultimately, it’s up to each player to decide how advocating for Black lives and playing for the NBA intersect for them.

It was reported on June 27 that the NBA and NBPA will allow players to put a statement about social justice on their jerseys where their names would usually be.

Will Nike ads, shoes, and t-shirts do the trick this time? Or will players and owners need to look beyond their place in the league to take appropriate meaningful action?

There’s no overnight fix to racism or a global pandemic. 

Only time will tell if the NBA’s return goes down as a triumphant moment for social justice and athletics, or as one of the worst decisions made by a pro sports organization in history.

What matters most right now is preventing the spread of coronavirus and continuing to push for social change—basketball or no basketball.

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