“That was really, in my opinion, a seminal moment in everybody’s mindset,” said NCAA president Mark Emmert of the organization’s decision to cancel this season’s NCAA basketball tournament following Rudy Gobert’s positive test for COVID-19. Emmert admitted that the NCAA was still planning to go through with the tournament just hours before the announcement on that now-infamous Wednesday in mid-March. And while Gobert was ridiculed for his crass action of touching reporters’ mics during a press conference, the NBA tried to recontextualize that moment by asking Gobert to record a PSA to raise awareness. In echoing Emmert's comments, Adam Silver said that the league would have likely continued playing had Gobert not received a positive test.
We implicitly understand why it took an athlete to test positive in order for the virus to be taken seriously despite news warning us about its potential toll. There are underlying discussions of physicality and social class, that if a player in peak condition with vast resources could be infected, then we all were potentially exposed. Then again, augmented by an ever-prevalent connection through smartphones and social media, we are used to players telling emotionally resonant stories all year-round, with or without games. The audience and trust were already built in. So why wouldn’t players take the lead in this situation as well?
Roger Ebert famously said in a 2005 speech that movies were “like a machine that generates empathy.” Fifteen years later, with cinemas literally closed and off limits, we carry that machine in our pockets, engaging with it through swipes and taps of a screen. That directness between messenger and receiver is our personal medium. Interestingly, those same social media tools were seen as one cause for declining television ratings. Now, in this quarantined world, the league turned the directness and speed of social media into a key strength with its constant communication and engagement within an unknown, ever-changing future.
Players have taken storytelling into their own hands. Karl-Anthony Towns released a five-minute video on Instagram sharing how both his parents got the virus, with his mother currently in a coma. The video had a clear practical purpose outside of its vulnerability, asking the larger public to stay at home to prevent the virus’ spread. Joel Embiid, who was ejected for fighting Towns earlier this season, shared his support. These stories not only humanize athletes to us, but also seemingly to their rivals.
Marcus Smart also took initiative, announcing his positive diagnosis on Twitter despite being asymptomatic. Smart went one step further with his plans to donate blood to the National COVID-19 Convalescent Plasma Project, a research project searching for experimental treatments using samples from individuals who recovered from the virus (the league had also asked appropriate players and staff to donate to the project). As one researcher from the Mayo Clinic put it, athletes could play a unique role in the plasma research project as they are “big men with blood volumes, and...have an increase in their plasma volume from what you would expect from them being regular-sized guys.”
Lost in that headline was that three other players also chose to donate, though they preferred to stay anonymous. Of course, it is the individual’s decision whether to go public with their diagnosis. Only Kevin Durant’s name was made available after four Nets players tested positive for the virus. Dwyane Casey called out the professionalism of the Pistons training staff when Christian Wood’s positive diagnosis went public “before Christian even had a chance to tell his mom.”
Yet one wonders if there would have been that same public epiphany had Gobert’s name stayed private after his positive test. There was a significance to having a public face for a then-abstract concept like a global pandemic.
There are also concerns of oversharing on social media, with skeptical audiences adept at uncovering side motives. While many individuals came out with their own donations to cover revenue losses of event workers, Charlotte Hornets players chose to donate money as a team to avoid the message of competition and “self-promotion” in their generosity. Damian Lillard checked in with teammates before donating $100,000 to workers, letting them know that they were under no obligation to match his efforts.
If there were ever a time to let our defenses down and accept generosity on its face value, it would seemingly be now. But we’ve probably been trained too well in spotting online inauthenticity throughout the years. And we may have to recalibrate again in this world without sport, entertainment, or physical connection, forced to engage with new forms of storytelling we previously never knew we needed.
As his country battled the pandemic, the president of the Italian football federation Gabriele Gravina said that he never considered canceling the Serie A season because “sport and football in particular represent a glimmer of hope that we can get back to normal.”
The most recent rumors have the NBA attempting to finish its season in Vegas. Mark Cuban once suggested a potential mid-May return date, but now concedes that he has no idea when the season would restart. One of the few voices of optimism, Bucks general manager Jon Horst said that not only does his team believe that there will be a season but players are focused on “getting better every single day.”
Suggestions of potential return dates are as much for us as players or owners. There is the underlying implication in its messaging. Not only are brainstorming dates a way to recover television money and salvage the season, the NBA’s return would represent the normal, usual life we once had. We try to pick apart the details for insight: perhaps Cuban’s predictions come from charts, statistics and numbers not made available to the public. If the Bucks are practicing and focused on “taking it one day at a time,” then the game must be close to returning and we can go about our lives once again.
Interestingly, our desire for basketball and normalcy turned our gaze global. Basketball leagues in Asia became frameworks to predict dates of when the NBA could return, something to place any hope upon. The outlook is pessimistic thus far: Japan’s B League was criticized for jeopardizing player health in returning too early before canceling their season. South Korea’s basketball league also canceled the remainder of their season. We looked to the Chinese Basketball Association as a model the NBA could use in working out the logistical quirks of putting players and teams into one or two cities to finish out a season. But the CBA’s return was also pushed back indefinitely.
Currently the coach of the Beijing Royal Fighters, Stephon Marbury sent Silver an email in early March warning the commissioner about the impact of the virus. From there, the NBA, like many in America, watched global events unfold in separate timelines. Lessons of how the virus spread weeks earlier in Italy informed our decision making here in the states. The CBA’s now-delayed restart gave us a metric for how quickly the NBA could possibly return. We are here, but studying countries weeks and months ahead of us to envision our own future.
Maybe we needed leagues in other countries to restart to let us warm up to the return of the NBA. How will our relationship with players change when the game returns, now that they shared with us their most vulnerable moments? When are we allowed to care about the scoreboard and standings? It may be wrong to ask questions through framework of how we used to show our support in the past. But at some point, with proper time and distance, analysis and discussion of the game will return. Complaining about players on Twitter and Instagram will symbolize a form of healing. As if the outsized importance of the game in our lives represents a return to some sort of normal, that we made it through the worst.