The NBA’s Strange Pandemic Return Is All About Greed
The NBA has approved a plan for the league to return July 31, with teams living and playing games in an Orlando complex. Billionaires’ preferential treatment truly knows no bounds.
If there’s anything to be learned from the last three months of American life, it’s that our country is dysfunctional as hell. COVID-19 has exposed America’s privatized health-care system, showing that boardrooms full of rent-seeking health insurance executives aren’t even close to being up to the task of managing an actual health crisis. And the federal government and private enterprise have done an embarrassing job of mass-producing the testing kits we would need to track and contain the virus, so people are mostly stuck at home, hoping a vaccine gets made sooner rather than later. The effect of a homebound nation is an economy in total ruin, with little to no help from the powers that be. On top of all that, the police just can’t seem to stop murdering black people and beating the ever-living crap out of other people who call them on it.
So what exactly can this system do? Well don’t despair, ladies and gentlemen, because we have an answer: Put on a really complicated sporting event to salvage the financial losses of a cabal of billionaires.
The NBA Playoffs are on. The league has been indefinitely sidelined since March 11, when Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for the coronavirus. The virus, of course, has not passed, but the league has a plan to try and mitigate this. Instead of playing games in home stadiums, starting July 31, they’ll relocate to Walt Disney World’s Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Florida, where players, coaches, and a small cadre of support staff will congregate in a controlled environment where they will eat, sleep, practice, work out, and play basketball for a television audience in empty gyms. Twenty-two teams have been invited. They will play a mini-season of sorts: eight games to decide playoff entrants and seeding, then the playoffs. Players are allowed to golf on the Disney Campus (they have several courses) and eat at some of the nearby restaurants, but they have to stay in the complex. Players and support staff will be tested every day for COVID-19. Staff will not be allowed in players’ rooms, to avoid contamination. I have no idea if all these precautions will work, but I do know the league is pouring a lot of money into trying to make sure they do.
I wish I wasn’t so cynical about the NBA coming back. I think the NBA Playoffs are the best sports we have: a series of uber-dramatic gauntlets for any team hoping to sniff the title. None of that hot-game nonsense you get from the NFL and NHL playoffs, none of the baseball and soccer playoffs’ small-time theater, just the best basketball players in the world locked in a maniacal, high-stakes competition, bleeding and dying on every possession, seeking history’s validation. Michael Jordan couldn’t have been Michael Jordan in any other sport, because every other sports’ highest stakes just can’t compare to the maniacal leverage that you get from a series-winning shot attempt. And baby, it happens every year.
But man, it’s hard to look at the lengths and depths a coterie of billionaires are willing to go to in order to recoup a loss in the middle of a global pandemic, while everything else is rotting away at the vine. First, they had to get the players on board with getting thrown into a Street Fighter-style quarantine island competition. Then, they had to find a facility where they could make it happen. Thankfully, one of their corporate partners (ESPN is a subsidiary of the Walt Disney Corporation) has a giant facility they can’t do anything with as long as there’s a global pandemic going on, so they were able to figure that out. Coronavirus testing is at a premium, because our nation has sucked at mass mobilization since World War II ended. But guess what? Nothing is at a premium in America if you can pay for it, and NBA owners have a whole lot of money lying around, ready to get thrown at testing.
At a time when most sporting events in America just can’t really happen, the NBA’s owners and players got together, looked at how much money was on the line, shrugged their shoulders, and settled on bankrolling a golden battering ram to solve their short-term problems. It’s not that I’m not thankful for the big, stupid battering ram that will help me get work and shower me with basketball delights. It’s just infuriating that when everything else in America is drowning in a giant piss-filled toilet, our leaders and elites just shrug their shoulders, tell us to prepare for a horrible recession, double down on police violence as a means of maintaining order, and slander anyone with the temerity to wonder if maybe there are non-market solutions to any of this chaos.
Meanwhile, the planning and ingenuity that would get laughed out of any “serious” political discourse is on display in Florida. Contain and track coronavirus? Eh, sounds too expensive. Best to wait it out. Monthly stimulus checks to head off recession? Whoa, buddy, are you trying to raise the national debt? Address the looming terror of climate change? Sounds expensive! Also, I don’t know if that’s real. Make sure “The Billionaire Buyer” Tilman Fertitta doesn’t go bankrupt after issuing a billion dollars in bonds debt to buy the Houston Rockets? Heck, we better get a nation-state going. You think Disney World can help?
The NBA returning kicks ass. I can’t wait. But it’s also a symptom of the revolting function of our economy, where billionaires control massive swaths of capital, ready to be mobilized at the swipe of a finger, while the institutions that most people actually rely on—farms, clinics, grocery stores, hospitals, schools, old folks’ homes, the Postal Service, restaurants, public transportation, the roads, you name it—is subjected to non-stop starvation in the name of not making the billionaires who can afford to own and operate a professional sports franchise pay their fair share in taxes.
When Fertitta purchased the Rockets for $2.2 billion, he received an absurd tax break. Per Bloomberg, “Since the passage of the American Jobs Creation Act of 2004, buyers of sports teams have been able to write off a big chunk (sometimes almost all) of the purchase price against the team’s taxable income over 15 years. And because sports franchises these days are usually structured as limited liability companies or other pass-through entities whose earnings or losses flow through to owners’ personal tax returns, this tax deduction can also be used to offset income from other sources. This benefit is available to buyers of all kinds of businesses, but the remarkably high purchase prices of sports teams relative to the income they generate make it especially valuable to their owners.” Plus, taxpayers finance these billionaires’ NBA arenas.
Pro sports have returned in other countries too. Germany’s Bundesliga soccer club had been playing to empty stadiums for the last few weeks, as has the Korean Baseball Organization, because the countries where these leagues operate were able to get the clamps on early and efficiently enough to make it not completely idiotic to play sports outside of a massive quarantine bubble. The only thing keeping the United States from doing the same is the perplexing set of decisions that have left an obscene amount of wealth in the hands of a ludicrously small minority of people in the name of... what, exactly?