In March 2020, of all the news events announcing the impending threat of the coronavirus, the headline that definitively signaled to many Americans—many sports fans, anyway—that a pandemic had arrived was the National Basketball Association’s decision to suspend play. In the months that followed, the NBA’s quick response to a positive test from one of its players, Rudy Gobert, was widely viewed as a case study in responsible corporate action to reduce transmission of the virus. As Sports Illustrated wrote, “in many ways all other sports, and the country at large, took their cues” from the NBA; meanwhile, ESPN lauded the “high character and compassion” of the league’s commissioner, Adam Silver.
“We’re looking to find the right balance between health and safety on one hand and economic necessity on the other,” Silver told a Time interviewer in June about his plans to complete the NBA’s season at Disney World, in Orlando. The league went on to create a “bubble” at the theme park that was insulated from pandemic-ravaged Florida by a strict regime of mandatory quarantines and daily testing. Silver was clear in his intention that safety would always take precedence—the league would never, he said, adopt an attitude of “full steam no matter what.”
The bubble proved to be an enormous success, but less than six months after its conclusion, in October, Silver has abandoned his promise to prioritize “health and safety.” The current NBA season, sans bubble, has already seen fifty players test positive and dozens of games postponed. The situation stands to get worse; so many postponements means that the second half of the season will be a brutal marathon, with teams jetting around the country even more frequently than they are now, thus risking further outbreaks. Meantime, most journalists who cover the league have likewise reverted to business as usual, returning their focus to game performance rather than probing the glaring discrepancy between the image the league has cultivated and its behavior.
“If I’m writing about the NBA’s pandemic response, I’m writing about that. If I’m writing about basketball, I’m writing about basketball,” Seerat Sohi, a reporter for Yahoo Sports, says. Like Sohi, most journalists are compartmentalizing their discussion of the pandemic rather than foregrounding the ongoing public health crisis in everything they write or broadcast.
Malika Andrews, of ESPN, says, “We’re not science reporters—that’s not our primary beat. A lot of what we do is game and personality coverage.” After the season was suspended last spring, many reporters were forced onto unfamiliar terrain, doing interviews with epidemiologists and sifting through transmission research to assess how risky playing basketball really was. “ESPN—E is for ‘entertainment,’ ” Andrews says. “I think our reporting group did a very good job setting aside the entertainment and really zeroing in on important facts.”
Since the end of the bubble, though, much of sports media is content to get back to entertainment. Jackie MacMullan, a writer for ESPN, was dismayed to appear on a debate show last month that made no mention of recent news that four members of the San Antonio Spurs had contracted the virus. “A year ago, one player on one team tested positive, and all sports across the world came to a screeching halt.” Now, she says, “we can’t even get it on the air.”
As part of the NBA’s new “full steam” approach, it held an All-Star Game last week in Atlanta, a complete about-face from its assurances in the fall that the exhibition match would be abandoned. “There’s no doubt what that’s about,” The Athletic’s Marcus Thompson says. “It’s all about money.” According to the New York Times, the league relies on the event for tens of millions of dollars in revenue from its broadcast partners. The NBA’s season launch, timed right before Christmas, was likely also a lucrative maneuver; holiday games are its regular season’s most-watched.
Prominent athletes vocally opposed holding the All-Star Game this year. LeBron James called the idea a “slap in the face,” and reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo said he has “zero energy, zero excitement” about participating. Their objections were borne out over the weekend, when Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons were held out of the game after contact with a barber who later tested positive for the virus.
MacMullan dismisses the public hand-wringing—the game was approved by the players union, as were the plans for the season as a whole, she says. “The fact of the matter is, the players know if the All-Star Game isn’t being held, and that TV revenue isn’t being generated, then they’re not sharing it either.” Losing that income wouldn’t matter much for the sport’s biggest names, whose endorsement deals often pay them more than their playing contracts. But the vast majority of the union’s membership are journeymen whose well-being is directly linked to the financial health of the league. It was this vast middle class of players who were happy to vote for their more renowned teammates to risk infection in Atlanta.
“The classic refrain is that sports are a function of a normal society,” Tyler Tynes, who recently left The Ringer for GQ, says. “But both athletics and society are nowhere near normal.”
TO CALL OUT THE RISKS of the current situation, NBA reporters will have to abandon the relatively chummy relationship they’ve developed with the league and adopt a more adversarial stance, like that of many National Football League reporters. “They take too much credit for not being the NFL,” Sohi says of Silver and other league administrators. Indeed, Silver benefits from the ineptitude of Roger Goodell, whose fifteen-year tenure atop the NFL has been something of a cascade of self-inflicted crises, from a craven effort to suppress research on the connection between football and traumatic brain injuries to Ray Rice’s light punishment for assaulting his fiancée.
The gap between the leagues is most evident when it comes to racial justice—compare the NFL’s exiling of Colin Kaepernick with the NBA’s quick embrace of messaging around the Movement for Black Lives over the summer, when it painted its courts in Orlando with slogans and pledged $300 million to Black communities.
Reporters who cover the NFL harbor few illusions that the league’s priority is anything other than making as much money as possible. Silver, on the other hand, has been uniquely successful at persuading journalists that the NBA holds itself to a loftier standard. That campaign began just after he was appointed commissioner, in 2012, when Silver stripped Donald Sterling of his ownership of the Los Angeles Clippers in response to a TMZ video in which he used racial slurs. Silver’s decisiveness in the matter was a stark shift from his predecessor, David Stern, who had not only tolerated Sterling’s bigotry for decades but had also long seemed intent on limiting the self-expression of Black players, most infamously with the imposition of a dress code in 2005 that prohibited “chains, pendants, or medallions.” Stern was uncompromising with journalists, too: he was caustic in press conferences and once bellowed at a nervous reporter, “Do you have a real fucking question?” Silver, by contrast, is an accommodating interview subject with an empathetic aura—on one occasion, he shared concerns about how social media was affecting the mental health of players. This approach has won Silver a warm relationship with the sports press, which has found few occasions in the past nine years to criticize him with anything approaching the stridency reserved for Roger Goodell.
For Tynes, though, any differences between the NFL and NBA are more a matter of degree than of kind. “The NFL is the Jim Crow to the James Crow of the NBA,” he says. While NFL management is frequently criticized for failing to represent its players—just three of the NFL’s thirty-two coaches are Black—Tynes points out that the NBA’s management is also much whiter than its player population, which is about 75 percent Black.
For all the controversy, too, around the playing of the national anthem at NFL games, the NBA has been just as unyielding. The league rejected a recent bid by Mark Cuban, the outspoken owner of the Dallas Mavericks, to scrap the anthem tradition entirely. “All the purported social activism has honestly been pretty aesthetic,” Sohi says. Thompson agrees: “You’re either about the money or you’re about the movement.”
The NBA has sought to have it both ways in recent years, not only associating itself with the Movement for Black Lives but hiring a record number of women as referees and coaches. The pandemic, though, has made the league’s real priorities unmistakable. “The NBA’s no different from any other league,” MacMullan says. “The bubble was a nice little story, but reality has hit, and the bottom line rules, as it always has in sports.”
What else could reporters have done to push the NBA either to delay its season or to adopt an alternate format with fewer games and less travel? “I think, honestly, I copped out a bit,” Sohi says. “When the NBA was shaping its bubble, I did a lot of reporting on what they should do: ‘Is this safe?’ ‘Here’s some ideas.’ I wasn’t as strong with it in December or November, even though the protocols right now are way looser than they were in the bubble.” Against the go-along-to-get-along mentality of most of the NBA press corps, Sohi’s willingness to hold herself accountable is refreshing.
“We need to put more pressure on these leagues,” Tynes says. “The way we’ve taught journalism for the longest time is to suggest that our journalists are not advocates, our journalists are not activists. But someone has to do the job of speaking truth to power.” If the journalists who cover one of the most powerful sports leagues in the world aren’t willing to take it to task now, with its hypocrisy and naked pursuit of profit on full display, it’s increasingly difficult to imagine they’ll ever be able to do so.
TOP IMAGE: Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images