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NBA Game Changer?

Nothing as meticulous and self-contained as the NBA Bubble could be constructed for the rest of us.

On July 30, the National Basketball Association (NBA) began scrimmages in the “NBA Bubble,” a self isolation resort inside Disneyworld in Orlando, Florida. The Bubble has strict rules to protect players and other staff from the COVID-19 pandemic as they close out the 2019–20 season and playoffs in the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. The whole production is costing $150 million, but that’s a small price to pay given that the NBA playoffs generated $932 million in advertising in 2019 and hundreds of millions more in basketball apparel sales and endorsements. But it all goes down the drain if there’s a coronavirus outbreak; the season was suspended after one member of the Salt Lake City Jazz tested positive on March 11.

Two players who tested positive upon their arrival were quarantined, and no one has tested positive since. Players, coaching staff, and Bubble personnel are all tested every other day, and anyone who leaves for whatever urgent reason is quarantined for four days upon their return. Virtual fans fill virtual stands via video link, and when sitting on the sidelines most players and coaching staff wear masks, as do most referees, even as the players climb over and crash into one another fighting for the ball, shooting, and blocking shots.

Los Angeles Clippers star Lou Williams left the Bubble for a funeral, and was famously quarantined for 10 days after someone took his picture in Atlanta’s Magic City strip club and posted it to Instagram before his return, even though he and his pals all seemed to be wearing masks in the picture. Williams claimed he’d just stopped by to pick up some of the best chicken wings in Atlanta, but wisecrackers responded that he’d gone for the legs and the thighs, and several girls at the club said he was a generous tipper. Clippers Coach Doc Rivers might have been angrier if the team had lost their second spot in the NBA standings while Williams was in quarantine.

Basketball trivia aside, the elaborate precautions taken in the NBA Bubble should validate those arguing that widespread, systematic testing and contact tracing could stop the spread of the virus

BioReference Laboratories, the Bubble’s official COVID-19 testing service, reportedly has around 100 staff members living and working inside the Bubble. They control every aspect of testing, from taking swabs to analyzing samples in a lab about an hour outside of Orlando, all of which facilitates a fast turnaround. A 72-hour window is standard for the company to report results, but many in the Bubble are getting results even faster.

Basketball trivia aside, the elaborate precautions taken in the NBA Bubble should validate those arguing that widespread, systematic testing and contact tracing could stop the spread of the virus, but as we all know, that’s not happening out here in the rest of the US. The federal government is instead pouring vast sums into pharmaceutical corporations to develop vaccines and cures while their stock prices yo-yo up and down with every bit of good or bad news, and politicians argue about how much the cures and vaccines should cost.

Nothing as meticulous and self-contained as the NBA Bubble could be constructed for the rest of us, but if coronavirus, rather than Russia and China for example, were defined as a national threat that we need to defend against, some number of billions of the $800 billion military budget could be redirected to testing and contact tracing and the virus would likely be contained.

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The same billions or more could be devoted to keeping the 28 to 40 million Americans now facing loss of their homes through eviction or foreclosure due to the depression caused by the lockdown. Facing the loss of your home for whatever reason causes incomparable stress, and I can’t imagine it leaves anyone with time or energy to worry about Russia or China. To quote Public Citizen, “Canceling evictions is national security.”

Messaging in the Bubble

Seventy-five percent of NBA players are Black, and “Black Lives Matter” has been painted on all the courts. Every sweatshirt worn by every member of every team bears the same message. Players speak to the press about social justice, and we see film of them calling for justice and chanting “Black Lives Matter” with bullhorns at the head of demonstrations in their respective hometowns. Portland Trailblazers star Damian Lillard said that he had expected a crowd of Black people at the first protest after George Floyd’s gruesome death, but when he saw as many or more white people there he thought the movement could have some success.

LeBron James, the biggest name in basketball, told the press that he and the league are now most concerned about the arrest of the police officers who shot Breonna Taylor in Louisville in March. “Us as the NBA, and us the players, and me as one of the leaders of this league, I want her family to know, and I want the State of Kentucky to know, that we feel for her and we want justice. What’s right is right and what’s wrong is wrong, and this is wrong in my eyes and a lotta other eyes.”

LeBron asked whether it would take a video of Breonna’s death to see justice:

“Well it’s fortunate that we had the George Floyd video, to see it. I mean is that what we need—to see a video of Breonna bein’ killed—for people to realize how bad the situation is? I don’t even believe they was at the right place, right? Cops wasn’t even at the right place. They just knocked down the wrong door and started doing what they do at that time, and that’s just shootin’ away. And that’s just not OK.

“I seen a video today of a Black man inside like a Walmart or a Target or whatever tryin’ to buy a bike for his son, and the cops was called on him. He had a receipt and everything and the cops was called on him, and they arrested him inside the store and took him outside. I mean it’s just heartbreaking, man, you guys don’t understand, unless you’re a person of color, you guys don’t understand. I understand that you might feel for us, but you can never really truly understand what it’s like to be Black in America.”

LeBron was one of the players who chose not to replace the family name on the back of his NBA jersey with one of the 29 social justice messages approved by NBA officialdom, the NBA players association, and Nike. Like his teammate Anthony Davis, he said that option simply didn’t resonate with him, though he also said he would have liked to be among those who chose the 29 approved messages: Black Lives Matter; Say Their Names; Vote; I Can't Breathe; Justice; Peace; Equality; Freedom; Enough; Power to the People; Justice Now; Say Her Name; Sí Se Puede (Yes We Can); Liberation; See Us; Hear Us; Respect Us; Love Us; Listen; Listen to Us; Stand Up; Ally; Anti-Racist; I Am A Man; Speak Up; How Many More; Education Reform; Mentor; and Group Economics, which seems to mean Black patronage of Black businesses.

Nike, the largest sports apparel manufacturer in the world and the one who made the custom jerseys, is infamous for its exploitation of Indonesian and Asian sweatshop labor, and there were no messages of labor solidarity or respect for labor among the options. There was no approved “Defund the Police” message, and I haven’t heard any of the players voice that either.


LeBron endorsed Biden at the beginning of the restart, and a lot of players are wearing the “Vote” message on the back of their jerseys. But whomever these celebrity ballers endorse or vote for, they have enormous influence on the culture. Now, with 28 to 40 million people, a disproportionate number of them Black people, facing eviction or foreclosure through no fault of their own, I’d like to see “Black Homes Matter” on the backs of their jerseys. It might even be a game changer, so to speak.

Ann Garrison
Black Agenda Report