The NBA is putting profits over players’ lives

Illustration by Myah Anglin | The Signal

On March 11, the entire basketball world froze. The NBA decided that their player’s health was more important than profits. Well, until June, when the NBA Board of Governors decided to resume the league in sunny Orlando, Florida.  

When the Orlando Bubble concluded in October, many were astonished that there were zero positive COVID-19 cases among the 22 teams and thousands of Walt Disney World and NBA employees.

The Los Angeles Lakers spent over 100 days isolated from the real world, battling their way to a 17th championship in franchise history and finally rejoicing with their families. Almost as if the season never ended, the Orlando Bubble made the league near $2 billion in revenue.

But then came the 2020-21 season, and the harsh reality set in. Players, coaches and personnel were back home and not safely separated from society in their hotel. 

Even commissioner Adam Silver expressed cautious optimism, saying, “[I’m] optimistic about improvements in February … after we get through the darkest days.”

Players can no longer enjoy meals together or gather at the hotel pools with teammates and other friends competing on opposing teams. The luxury of traveling the country quickly became a hassle as Sharpies were exchanged for hand sanitizer. COVID-19 quickly gripped the league as a new wave and new variants of the virus took the nation by storm.

The harsh reality even tackled once-healthy players.

If you have been on sports Twitter over the past few weeks, you will notice a typical headline: “NBA team quarantined after playing the [Washington] Wizards.” The Boston Celtics were just the latest team to see a COVID outbreak after facing the Wizards. 

The league met this pattern with a massive lockdown of the teams, including but not limited to prohibiting non-team guests. The season just started and is already at risk of facing the previous season’s fate. 

In addition to the Wizards, several other teams are postponing games after not meeting the required eight-players to compete in a game. There are even players who are re-contracting the virus that has taken over 400,000 lives in the U.S. so far.

Last week, the NBA canceled the Atlanta Hawks matchup with the Suns and two other games due to contact tracing. The situation got so out of hand that on Jan. 13, the league forced everyone to quarantine for two weeks, effectively shutting down the season. All to prevent another bubble for the league. 

It seems like, every hour, an NBA insider reports another positive test and another team ineligible for their next game.

So why not just wait until everything gets resolved? Why risk putting many players and coaches and their families at risk — and let’s be completely clear, these are ordinary people, just with unusual jobs — when an end may be near?

It all comes down to money.

If the NBA did not finish last season, they would have lost $1.5 billion, Forbes estimates. The Orlando Bubble saved the NBA and everyone’s finances, from the players to the owners. 

The owners and players make ludicrous amounts of money, though? Why would they not be in favor of taking a break?

Some players do not have the same financial security as LeBron James or James Harden, both of whom will make up to $30 million. Many players live paycheck to paycheck, just holding on. You also have to factor in all the staff with the league, each team and the arena’s and the bills that the arenas have to pay. A single disruption, a single slowdown, could send everything spirling. 

But as bills are being paid off, lives are on the line — not just the players’ and staff but their families’ and those of the people they are around. The situation is dire, and players like NBA vet and current Oklahoma City Thunder George Hill frankly just don’t want to follow the regulations.

The league is really trying to save its pocketbook by pushing for a vaccine. The NBA says it isn’t going to force players to receive the vaccine, but they recently released an ad with Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar that encouraged fans to take the vaccine and announced he would take it as well.

However, that doesn’t negate the fact that the league is playing catchup as superstars like Karl-Anthony Towns of the Minnesota Timberwolves tested positive after losing his mother and six other family members from the virus less than a year ago.

At the time of this story’s publication, 13 games have been postponed since the start of the season. And as the cases pile up and the list of postponed games continues to grow, the league continues to doubt a game shut down. Mostly because the players don’t want to play in a bubble. But that comes at the risk of their lives and others around them.

That is the underlying issue: where do we draw the line in terms of profits? COVID-19 has left many Americans jobless and homeless as businesses continue to close. But the businesses that affect the bottom line of the wealthy haven’t stopped. Movie and music studios continue to pump out content as theaters and venues go out of business.

Major sports such as the MLB, NBA, NFL and even WWE continue to hold events, putting their profits above their athletes’ lives. And it seems as if few of these athletes care. It has even affected college teams as Georgia State’s basketball team had to postpone games.

It’s going to come down to someone in the upper reaches of the game to die before the league takes serious action. It’s going to come down to someone like Jame to step up and say enough is enough. Or better yet, it’s going to take him catching the virus and being confined to a hospital before the league takes action.

This disease is not the cold. It is not the flu. You can’t just play through this on a whim. This is a virus that has claimed nearly half a million lives in the U.S. alone, at the time of writing. This is a virus that shut down the world for almost a year. 

Sadly, the NBA continues to act like it’s not a big deal. They continue to act like the lives of their players are not at risk.

Sure, they may have instituted protocols, but you can’t wear a mask and play basketball. For every second they are playing their games, living their passion, their lives are at risk. All it takes is one infected person in the bathroom taking their mask off. Suddenly, the entire building could be infected because who wants to wear a mask while using the bathroom?

I hope it doesn’t come to a player dying because the NBA is putting profits before health.