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The NBA, NBPA, and tempting fate

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Toronto Raptors v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

What are we even doing? Last Friday night, the Brooklyn Nets and Toronto Raptors were playing a national TV game on ESPN and everything became weird. Right before the game, Kevin Durant got pulled from warmups as an associate (later revealed to be a team employee) he had been in contact with tested positive for COVID-19. Durant wound up playing in the game and then got pulled by the league early in the second half. KD is now out for a few days with his return likely Saturday when he returns to Golden State. As you would expect, the league’s handling of Durant pissed off the Nets and Joe Harris accurately summed up everyone’s feelings when he said:

The drama surrounding Durant has put the NBA’s handling of COVID-19 back into a sharper focus. Last month, Philadelphia 76ers guard Seth Curry was removed from the bench during a game against the Nets after he tested positive for COVID. From there, the already shorthanded Sixers got put into an even worse situation as the league forced them to play an afternoon game against the Denver Nuggets even though they only had seven healthy players available and as other COVID wracked teams had their games postponed. Around the same time, the Washington Wizards were dealing with a COVID outbreak that kept them out of action for weeks.

With the NBA trying to speed through this season to hit the minimum number of games for television contracts to lock in, the league office and Players Union made a curious decision. Late last week, it was announced that the league and players agreed to hold this year’s All Star Game in Atlanta. Prior to the start of the season, the game, which was originally set to be in Indianapolis this year was postponed to 2024.

Not to be outdone, the All Star Saturday Night events like the Slam Dunk Contest and Three Point contest are scheduled to take place on the Sunday of the game as well. Woj reported Wednesday that the dunk contest could be held at halftime!

Since those announcements, practically everyone has called the decision from the league and players’ union out for being a disastrous mistake. From young stars like De’Aaron Fox to future Hall of Famers like Carmelo Anthony to faces of the league Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard, and of course LeBron James, it’s been a run of players coming out against this decision in the strongest terms possible. At most, you’ve gotten begrudging understanding of why the league is trying to do this from stars like Damian Lillard.

On the Nets, James Harden put it quite succinctly.

“There’s so much going on as far as we’re trying to calm the virus down — and we’re putting on an event, you know?” Harden said. “I know what the reasoning is for, but I feel like, especially with a condensed schedule, it feels like everything was forced upon players. It’s already draining to be playing a lot of games in a week. I feel like that was a week for us to kind of relax, be with our families and kind of take a step back away from basketball.”

As the league and Player’s Association kicked the tires on doing the All Star Game in Atlanta, this bit of reasoning really jumped out to me. From an Adrian Wojnarowski report:

NBPA president Chris Paul of the Phoenix Suns has been a proponent of the idea, which would include the showcasing and benefiting of historically Black colleges and universities and COVID-19 relief funds, sources said. Both the Atlanta Hawks’ State Farm Arena and Atlanta-based HBCU campus gyms are under consideration to house a potential game, sources said.

This is the thing someone tells you when they’re trying to play in your face. For years, the NBA has been working as allies of minority communities as they work to fight voter suppression across the United States, establishing coalitions to fight against racism, writing op-eds challenging potentially discriminatory policy in Massachusetts, Michael Jordan opening health clinics in Black communities in Charlotte, etc. It isn’t all good for the NBA, of course. Team owners actively contribute millions of their dollars to groups and organizations directly against those causes, so the league has a lot more to do to change communities in the ways that they express.

So with all that actual work being done, the league and PA leadership using HBCUs as a reason to have unnecessary —and likely unsafe— All Star events when they can use the money they already have to support HBCUs anyway feels incredibly insulting.

The league is trying to recoup as much money as they possibly can, and that’s their prerogative. If you want to make back a little more money, say that instead of cloaking a money grab as a public good. Considering the grind the players have been through over the past year to complete these seasons, they deserve the time off to rest up, be with their families and communities instead of shuttled in and out of a COVID hotspot. Combine that with players not wanting to even be in Atlanta for the event, and all you’ve got is an awful game with players who’d rather be anywhere else.

As is the case in Atlanta, Chicago, and everywhere else you can think of, COVID has disproportionately impacted Black communities. Between the effects of the virus, the lack of access to the vaccine, and previous systemic barriers to health care and treatment, the pandemic has served to make previous perilous situations even worse.

In this moment in particular, the league and PA should weigh that in their decision to force everyone down into a city that has shown poor governmental leadership in managing the pandemic and suffered severe losses in the community. In the past, we’ve seen the NBA use their economic influence as a response to harmful policy. Could they do something similar with COVID and Georgia to enact more support for impacted communities? It’s worth considering.

As this NBA season grinds on, difficult choices have to be made. Between all the travel, shaky COVID protocols, and poor and uneven rollout of vaccines across the United States, everyone in the league is tempting fate each time a game is played. Sure, the seven-day moving average of new cases has been cut in half across the country, including in Atlanta, but history —and the arrival of new variants— should make everyone wary of getting too confident too fast.

For the league and players association leadership, they have to decide whether some extra money is worth the bad publicity, upset labor force, and risk of another COVID outbreak an All Star Game this year in Atlanta could possibly bring. The choice should be easy enough.