Would a 2020 NBA Champion Ever Be Seen as Legitimate?

George Karl is one of nine NBA coaches who have won over a thousand games in their career. He also has a 40-year reputation as a straight talker, never afraid to ruffle some feathers. When it comes to restarting the NBA season amid the coronavirus pandemic, Karl was in good form, tweeting, “It’s just my opinion and I don’t have all the facts. But, as a huge hoops fan, I think it’s time to call the NBA season. Honors the game better. We stay on a more regular schedule and we can come back healthy and strong next season!”

Such a statement is apostasy at the current moment, as the league hemorrhages revenue. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has committed to reopen at any cost. His current plan is to send everyone to Orlando to resume the season. In an act of corporate synergy, games would be held (without fans in attendance) at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, a part of Walt Disney World. Disney owns ESPN, which is a multibillion-dollar television partner of the NBA. The network is desperate for content to broadcast. Everyone wants to cash checks, and if that means having the playoffs take place in a dome in Orlando without fans, then so be it.

But even as the country takes steps to reopen its doors, safely holding NBA basketball games is a hell of a lot more complicated than just saying, “We’re all going to Disney World.” First and foremost, there is the question of the kinds of testing that would be necessary to pull this off. Mark Cuban, the Dallas Mavericks owner who is also on the Trump commission to reopen sports—a commission that contains no health experts, no union leaders, no women, and no people of color—has said that his team will not participate unless daily testing is possible. But as many epidemiologists, like Dr. Celine Gounder, have stated, supplying constant tests to a multibillion-dollar sports league while frontline workers don’t have enough testing is a moral abomination.

The NBA is well aware that the optics of plentiful testing for players could spell disaster. NBA spokesperson Mike Bass said on Tuesday, “Regular testing will be key in our return to play.” He added that it will “not come at the expense of testing front line health care workers or others who need it.” But how the league will guarantee that remains a mystery. In addition to how they will engineer a program of constant testing in an atmosphere of scarcity, it is unclear how this contact sport will manage when players test positive for Covid-19. Will the entire league shut down again, as it did in March when Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive? What of the higher risk NBA employees? Coaches over the age of 65? Support staff with health problems? The NBA has no answer for any of this either.

There is also the question of how salaries will be determined. The NBPA is weighing the offers, but judging by the comments of union leader Chris Paul, the players are raring to return. Paul said,

“Obviously we want to play. Oh man, we want to play. We want to play bad. And I think that’s a consensus for the guys around the league. We want it to be, obviously, as safe as possible. But the biggest thing is, we miss the game.”

Then there is the most looming question: Would a championship won in this context have even the veneer of legitimacy? Would a season that ends in Orlando with no fans ever matter? Will a season that is a blatant money grab aimed at satisfying the bank accounts of owners, players, and broadcast partners produce a champion worthy of its name?

The answer is that it will be seen as legitimate only if the fans grasp onto this construct and imbue it with their interest. If the fans care—an iffy proposition—all the media naysaying in the world will not matter. But that doesn’t change the fact that we are looking at a cynical, withered end to the 2020 season of the world’s most beautiful sport.

I will welcome the televised distraction, but can’t say that it is anything to celebrate. George Karl is right: It dishonors the game to finish the season in Orlando. But honor has nothing to do with it.

Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to dave@edgeofsports.com.
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