By Leo Kamin
It seems that every American institution has failed this year. Our president has pushed misinformation on the coronavirus and failed to take any substantial action. Congress proved incapable of agreeing on a deal to provide aid to an economy with a double digit unemployment rate and a looming eviction crisis, throwing up their hands and leaving Washington. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s initial coronavirus tests were faulty, allowing the virus to quickly spiral out of control. But in the midst of this sea of ineptitude, lies one shiny, glittering outlier — the National Basketball Association.
Even in the early days of the pandemic, the NBA, and its commissioner, Adam Silver, exhibited an ability to make the necessary quick, unilateral and science-based decisions that were all too rare among the leaders and leading institutions of this country. On Mar. 11, Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for coronavirus; within hours, the NBA suspended its season. This was more than a week before California became the first state in the country to issue a stay-at-home order, and more than five months before the president told Americans that they should wear masks.
The NBA’s suspension was a wake up call for many, myself included. That Wednesday afternoon is something I will never forget — it really felt like a collective “oh s***” moment.
The league’s decision potentially saved thousands of lives. A single Champions League soccer match in Milan, Italy, for example, has been blamed for accelerating the Lombardy region’s massive outbreak.
As the pandemic progressed, it became clear that it would likely be months — possibly even years — before fans could return to NBA stadiums. Rather than give up, though, both the league and its players decided to try to find a way to play out the remainder of the 2019-2020 season. It would be nice to believe that they were motivated by a love of the game, or a desire to provide a bored, stir-crazy nation a much-needed distraction, but, as you might expect, it seems that their motivations were primarily monetary. The NBA has a multi-billion-dollar TV deal, much of which goes to the players; this money, though, is incumbent on them, well, actually playing basketball.
So, with money on their mind, the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association did something that our president has seemingly not done a single time in his nearly four-year tenure — they talked to the experts.
The result: “the bubble,” a self-contained and self-sufficient community of players, coaches, reporters, and support staff at Disney World in Orlando, Florida, complete with a barbershop, lounges, a golf course, pools, spas, and DJ sets. It is governed by exhaustive health and safety protocols and includes a rigorous testing program. The rules are so strict, in fact, that a player was forced to quarantine for 10 days after crossing the street to pick up an order of chicken wings. In regards to the virus, the bubble has been an unmitigated success. All occupants are required to be tested daily, and there has not been a single positive test after the initial quarantine period. This is in a state that, for much of the bubble’s existence, has been considered a COVID hot spot. It’s truly crazy what happens when you listen to scientists.
While the bubble is clearly not a model that can be immediately replicated nation-wide , it does go to show that with the proper planning, resources and buy-in, certain aspects of our lives can return to normal.
Beyond serving as a good example, the NBA has also made it easier for other institutions — like universities — to create bubbles of their own. The league and the NBPA partially funded a Yale University-developed saliva test for COVID-19, one of the first of its kind, and used its own players as experimental subjects to verify its accuracy. The test recently became, by far, the cheapest saliva test approved by the Food and Drug Administration, providing rapid results while requiring little extra equipment. The league has also provided thousands of free tests in Orlando and other NBA markets to ensure that the bubble’s massive testing regime does not reduce the accessibility of testing in the broader community.
The NBA has also been able to recognize the importance of another crisis gripping the country — systemic racism. The league has allowed its players to put the messages of the Black Lives Matter movement front and center, from the backs of jerseys to postgame interviews. The vast majority of players have knelt for the national anthem, and a number of teams even participated in a multi-day boycott of the playoffs following the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin. Instead of blackballing the players who participated in the peaceful protests — as it seems another professional sports league that shall not be mentioned would have done — the league agreed to increase the visibility of the racial justice messaging and partnered with the players on an initiative to increase the accessibility of voting.
Sometimes hope, good leadership and apparently even just basic competency come from the unlikeliest of places. Over the past six months, Adam Silver, the league and its players have consistently made the type of community-driven, socially-conscious and science-based decisions that have been all too rare in American society in the last few years.
So, in conclusion, my choice in 2020 is quite easy — I’m writing-in Adam Silver.*
*Actually, the reporter cannot vote in 2020, and if he could he would vote for Joe Biden.