Commentary: The NBA is coming back, whether we want it or not

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Though it goes without saying, let’s open with the obvious: here at Raptors HQ, we love professional basketball and the Toronto Raptors. It brings us pleasure to watch the sport and, in particular, to watch our home team play — especially given that they were in the midst of their first ever NBA title defense.

That all out of the way: It remains intensely weird and not a little upsetting to consider the return of basketball on July 31st.

Let’s start with the most obvious problem out there right now: COVID-19. As we all know, the NBA suspended operations back on March 11, with commissioner Adam Silver originally offering a 30-day timeframe for the shutdown. It was understood that until more was known about the nature of the coronavirus and how we’ll deal with it, it made sense not to stuff 20,000 people into an enclosed space for the purposes of watching sports. The league couldn’t guarantee the safety of its players, and it surely couldn’t guarantee the safety of its fans either. In short: it was the right call.

Fast forward to three months later and… we’re not any closer to getting a handle on COVID-19. In fact, with the rush to re-open in some states (and, indeed, this very province), it feels like the situation is about to get worse in North America, not better. For all the stories we’ve heard here in Toronto about, for example, improper social distancing in public parks, it still is just the tip of the iceberg. There are many more horror stories coming out of places like meat-packing plants or amongst migrant workers on farms — people who have far fewer options than, say, hipsters on Queen West — that create a worrisome trend. Since the governments of both Canada and the United States have refused to properly address things like virus testing, access to healthcare, and functional unemployment payments, along with mortgage and rent relief, the desperation people feel now may only continue to grow as the choices available to them continue to thin.

Into this egregious and unprecendented situation comes the NBA, casting our desire for the return of basketball in an ugly light. Deep down, we already know why the league is pushing to come back. As Corbin Smith put in for the Daily Beast, it’s about greed. Yes, the players themselves will be able to keep their paycheques coming, but the real big winners here will be the league’s billionaire owners who will reap the benefits of the league’s return — even in its circumscribed form beamed around the world from Disney World in Florida — while dodging any of the attendant health risks. We’ve covered this elsewhere on the site thanks to a thoughtful column from Sean Woodley, but allow me to reiterate: it sure does feel like all of these elaborate plans are unnecessary — and also dangerous.

But now there’s something more to consider. Woodley’s column was merely — hah! — addressing the issues the league was facing with regards to the ongoing pandemic. Unlike Smith’s piece, it was written before America’s police (and Canada’s too) quite openly declared war on the citizenry, adding another dimension to the current situation. To be clear, this is a war that’s been happening for decades (if not centuries) in North America and across the globe, but this latest version — stoked by an openly racist American president and a cadre of other cowardly political “leaders” — has ignited a popular movement across racial lines that is seeking no less than the abolishment (or, at the very least, defunding) of the police. For emphasis, let me add: it’s a righteous action far past due.

Now, if we’re able to link the two issues together — the pandemic and state violence — a terrifying potential future appears before us. To begin with, it’s obvious the police brutality we’ve seen so far — against Black people in particular, and their allies — is a product of white supremacy. It’s why similar protests led by (armed!) white folks in the name of re-opening the continent have been met with far less hostility. This is one example of how white supremacy works in practice. And if it’s not already clear, it remains the most powerful and deadly tool of those same aforementioned billionaires, the class hellbent on protecting their own interests over everything else.

So then, if societal desperation continues to grow, what do you think the police in America and Canada will do next? If or when our next economic downturn comes, someone will have to enforce the possible austerity measures that come along with it. Make no mistake, whatever form that brutality takes, it will first be targetted at Black people (and other vulnerable populations, like the Indigenous peoples of Canada). This only makes it all the more important for everyone to stand in solidarity with them. As we’ve seen over the past week, the cops, in their role as an arm of the state, are ready to dole violence out to everyone. In this, supporting Black Lives Matter activists and organizations, building diverse workforces and unions, and implementing measures to lift marginalized people out of poverty is a moral imperative. We have to see how all these issues are interconnected — and how we are indeed all in it together. And while it may seem like an impossible task, this grand reformation, here’s the good news: there are more of us than there are of them.

To bring this back to the return of the NBA, a real “bread and circuses” vibe begins to emerge here, with the league’s insistence reading like a nod towards pacification. It’s almost as if we’re being told to just relax and watch basketball, to stop going into the streets together to protest the abuse that’s been coming — or will come — our way. That the league’s whole show is planned to be broadcast from within a bubbled corporate fiefdom as a vague precursor to the Rollerball future we appear to be tumbling towards is just too fitting. It exposes something we should know by now: the NBA is not built to address any of those aforementioned systemic issues despite all the back-patting it gets (and gives itself) for espousing “progressive” values.

In truth, there’s maybe not a lot we can do about that part, other than deciding not to watch. But there is something we can do about our various governments, at every level, who also do not appear up to the task of managing the COVID-19 and police brutality crises, despite that being their very real responsibility. Here is where I once again arrive at my point.

As we’ve seen over the past week, as we’ve seen over the past few years, as we’ve maybe read about from the decades and centuries past, we can fight for and achieve the society we want. We can use direct action to push for reform. What we’re seeing in the streets right now is proof that it’s already happening. To paraphrase the author Ursula K. Le Guin, the systems in place may feel inevitable or inescapable — but, in fact, they are not. We can change them.