NBA Bubble Postmortem

The smoke has cleared. The confetti has been swept away. The Los Angeles Lakers are the 2020 NBA Champions and the Seattle Storm are the WNBA Champions. LeBron James and Breanna Stewart are right where they are supposed to be: at the apex of their respective sports.

Somehow all that was done in a hermetically sealed, Covid-free Disney Bubble (or “Wubble” in WNBA parlance) in Orlando, Fla. There were highlight-worthy moments, fantastic finishes, stirring comebacks, and a number of players who made “the leap” in public consciousness to another level of stardom by the way they played. In other words, the Bubble was the site of a legitimate NBA season, no asterisk required.

The teams also did it without a single positive Covid test, something the NFL is currently learning is easier said than done. This is a tribute to the professionalism of the players and behind-the-scenes NBA employees, who were separated from families, friends, and loved ones for months as a precondition to eking out the 2020 season. They had to summon the will to play their best in circumstances alien to their professional existence. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who heard that there would be games in Orlando in front of no live fans, and assumed it would wouldn’t look like serious NBA ball. I was very wrong.

But there is another question when assessing the Bubble: that is whether it was the correct decision politically for the players to enter this space and play ball in the first place. From the moment NBA Commissioner Adam Silver posed this idea, he was met with reasons why they shouldn’t do it. First, it was people like former NBA coach George Karl who thought that the entire schedule should be canceled—with no champion crowned—rather than play a distorted version of it in Orlando. He tweeted last May, “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!”

Several players with preexisting health issues also bowed out, believing the risk factor to be greater than any reward. But the greatest obstacle to the Bubble was when All-Star Kyrie Irving made an argument that playing would be a distraction and a disservice to the mass movements in the streets following the police murder of George Floyd. Irving, who is not just a top player but also a player’s union vice president, almost derailed the entire operation with an argument that connected with a wide swath of players. After Irving made his case, a “widely respected player” said to ESPN, “Once we start playing basketball again, the news will turn from systemic racism to who did what in the game last night. It’s a crucial time for us to be able to play and blend that and impact what’s happening in our communities. We are asking ourselves, ‘Where and how can we make the biggest impact?’ Mental health is part of the discussion too, and how we handle all of that in a bubble.”

Irving’s argument, however persuasive, did not carry the day because players like LeBron James and union President Chris Paul argued that they could do more to raise awareness about racial inequity if they played: That way, they could maintain their platform and keep the spotlight in the event that actions in the street needed to be amplified. To help aid the “LeBron position,” Adam Silver and the NBA added Black Lives Matter to the court, allowed players to choose from a prearranged selection of slogans to put on their uniforms, and incorporated “get out the vote” messaging.. This uneasy combination of protest and commerce cracked after the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis. George Hill of the Milwaukee Bucks said in frustration, “We shouldn’t have even came to this damn place, to be honest.” That frustration led to the Bucks going on strike for racial justice. This led, of course, to a cascade of strikes across the sports landscape against police violence. It also added to the imagination, the idea that labor could play a role in the fight for Black lives. We also need to remember that the players through their strikes re-centered the national discussion on the shooting of Jacob Blake at a moment when the RNC was trying to recast the summer protests as the actions of a small group of traveling Antifa anarchists and not the mass actions of multi-racial masses in all 50 states fed up with racist police violence.

The question that will now hang over the entire episode is whether it was worth doing. The answer to this really starts with understanding that athletes historically are less leaders in the fight for social justice than they are amplifiers of the struggles already taking place in the streets. It is exceptionally rare for an athlete to speak out in a vacuum. Instead, it is the streets, the campuses, and the workplaces that launch social revolt. Athletes can then play a critical role of projecting these messages from the grass roots across the cultural landscape as well as getting these ideas in front of the masses of depoliticized white sports fans. This is why the athlete’s political platform is so heavily policed by Trump, Fox News, and sports franchise owners.

It recalls the time Muhammad Ali had his title stripped away following his resistance to the Vietnam War draft and former champion Floyd Patterson wrote in Esquire, “The prizefighter in America is not supposed to shoot off his mouth about politics, particularly when his views oppose the Government’s and might influence many among the working classes who follow boxing. The prizefighter is considered by most people to be merely a tough, insensitive man, a dumb half-naked entertainer wearing a muzzled mouthpiece.”

Athletes are no longer muzzled, and it will be very difficult for the powers that be in sports to put this particular genie back in the bottle. They are feeling their power, and the NBA has led this movement away from silence during a time of profound crisis. Politically, the bubble popped, and our politics are better for 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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