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The NBA’s return in the time of Black Lives Matter and COVID-19

Zacharie Mouillé discusses the implications of restarting the NBA season during the coronavirus pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement

The NBA’s back. Over three months since the 2019-20 season was suspended in March, the NBA’s board of governors has approved a plan for the season to resume in Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex near Orlando, Florida on 31st July. 22 teams will return to play, 13 from the Western Conference and 9 from the Eastern Conference, with each team at least six games from clinching a playoff spot. Each team will play eight games to determine seeding, with a possible play-in tournament should the ninth seed finish within four games of the eighth seed.

However, the excitement from fans and players alike has been met with equal concern from several prominent players. Two key issues have been raised that the NBA’s governing body will need to address if it hopes to resume the season safely and with regard to the current political climate: the role NBA players should be playing in the Black Lives Matter movement and the rising cases of coronavirus in the country and in Florida in particular.

The first issue that was raised after the plan’s reveal is that restarting the season in the midst of a monumental civil rights movement may draw attention away from the current discussion around racial equality. Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving was the first to express these concerns, reportedly saying on a conference call with other players: “I’m not with the systematic racism and the bulls**t. … Something smells a little fishy. Whether we want to admit it or not, we are targeted as black men every day we wake up.” Los Angeles Lakers centre Dwight Howard voiced support for Irving, arguing that basketball “isn’t needed right now” in a statement to CNN. Irving makes a compelling point: the country stands at the precipice of historic change and NBA players enjoy the status and resources to help bring it about. Whether playing basketball would provide a better platform for players than protesting and actively raising awareness is doubtful and is something that must be addressed if the NBA wants to convince its players that it is appropriate to resume the season at such a vital moment for social justice.

Another group of players, including Nets superstar Kevin Durant and Lakers guard Avery Bradley, have argued that the recent rise in coronavirus cases in the country could put players in danger, and the current “bubble” arrangements are not sufficient to prevent players from contracting the disease. Florida has seen thousands of new cases in just the last few days, resulting in the state implementing new lockdown measures to fight the surge. Combined with the revelation last Friday that 16 out of the 302 players have tested positive for the virus (at time of writing), players may not be as safe in the “bubble” as the NBA has promised.

In response to these concerns, the NBA has implemented a number of policies. Echoing the English Premier League’s support of players wearing jerseys reading ‘Black Lives Matter’, the NBA will allow players to decide what will be written on the back of their jerseys from an approved list of 29 social justice messages bringing attention to the issues of systematic racism and police brutality. The league has further decided to allow players to opt out from playing the rest of the season. Avery Bradley was one of the first to do so, citing concerns about his son Liam who has a history of struggling to recover from respiratory illness.

With teams facing the possibility of losing their players to the league’s opt-out policy, the title race has been greatly impacted, with affected teams actively looking for replacements among the shrinking pool of available free agents, bringing familiar faces back into the league. The Lakers recently acquired veteran guard J.R. Smith, who was notable for playing with Lakers star player Lebron James during his time with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

This season’s title race is arguably one of the most competitive in recent memory, with no one team clearly dominating over the rest like the Golden State Warriors of the last five seasons. The season’s suspension may also impact each team’s road to the championship, providing some much needed rest for players who have a history of struggling in the postseason like the Houston Rockets’ Russell Westbrook and James Harden, and potentially disrupting the rhythm of teams like the Milwaukee Bucks who were predicted by many to dominate the Eastern conference on route to the Finals prior to the suspension.

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