Monday, June 22, 2020

The NBA "Bubble" Is Making Me Feel Genuinely Insane

Over the past several months we have all witnessed a daily barrage of surreal, maddening images of what the television commercials tell us are These Uncertain Times and in the grand scheme of things the machinations of a billion dollar professional sports league are relatively small potatoes, but I cannot help but look at reports about the NBA's plans to resume play in a half-assed quarantine bubble at a network of Disney World resorts and feel like I am listening to a bunch of guys who go on television to discuss whether or not talks between the Los Angeles Lakers and Avery Bradley are "heating up" earnestly describing to me some insane nightmare their subconscious has cobbled together while under general anesthesia for a surgical suit enlargening procedure.

As the so-called bubble plan took shape, the central NBA conversation has focused on how many teams would play, the structure of the playoffs format, where players would stay.  It ignored other questions important to me such as what has Jim Boylen been doing every day for the past three months and whether or not the idea of players literally living at Disney World but unable to go on any of the rides was a situation specifically enacted when the Lopez Brothers got their enormous hands on a monkey's paw.

When you are specifically barred from Space Mountain

But of course the central issue with the the bubble plan itself despite the safety protocols and testing regimens for the players and coaches and staff and reporters and family members and assorted hundreds of other people in the general NBA Bubble retinue is that the central thing they are gathering to do is to have a bunch of enormous sweaty guys lever forearms into each other for two and a half hours at a time in front of empty crowds during a pandemic that is rampaging through Florida so that cable television networks can air commercials where a guy pretending to be Chris Paul accidentally drives a combine harvester through the library wing of the Paul family manse.

The NBA's drive to return fits in as one of the most ludicrous and hare-brained schemes that fit into the larger and equally insane schemes to "open up" the United States while doing essentially nothing to address the fact that waves of plague are sickening and killing thousands of people every single day.  They keep repeating that phrase "opening up" and it is reverberating around my skull in the deranged register of some Lynchian black lodge character or in the way that phrases get chopped up, distorted, and crushed up against each other in every single FM radio promo that inexplicably became the industry standard because the only way to lead into another solid block of Zeppelin Friday is with a sound collage taken from the climax of a direct-to-video clown murder film.

There are numerous reasons for the race to Open Up that you can read from people who do not write blogspot websites about mediocre football teams, but the consequence of having a patchwork of local restrictions, contradictory and confusing messaging, the pandemic getting sucked into a brain-warping culture war over hypothetical constitutional guarantees to eat at Fuddrucker's whenever the fuck we want, or the president going on television to tell people that he is going to have our brave generals shrink themselves down into microscopic submarines and shoot at the virus with very strong lasers, they tell me they can do incredible things with these beautiful lasers has resulted in a matter of grave public health turning into an individualized ritual of self-expression.  There is the juxtaposition of people hurrying out of grocery stores in masks and gloves pirouetting around snaking lines of people waiting to get onto patios so they can order beers and blast spittle into each other's faces in conversations that largely involve yelling did you see what Kyle did on his instagram.

One entity that is decidedly not open for business is Major League Baseball.  Baseball's plans to return have been derailed by a protracted labor fight.  For whatever reasons, baseball teams have come to be owned by a group of people who seem to despise baseball, baseball players, and baseball fans.  Their sole interest appears to be paying baseball players as little money as possible-- front offices actually passed around a championship belt for the teams that best screwed over players in arbitration and this is what these guys do for fun at their decadent spreadsheet jamborees.

For the past several weeks there has been a cycle of Major League Baseball throwing out a proposal to players and players largely scoffing at it and demanding more money and then Major League Baseball offering them more or less the same amount.  The role of commissioner Rob Manfred remains unclear.  Manfred, a dead-eyed functionary who resurfaces from time to time to either explain how much people despise baseball or to come up with a plan to shave three more seconds from games by catapulting players from the dugout to the on-deck circle and who generally has the bearing of a guy who spends a lot of time setting up and filming elaborate model train accidents, has been largely absent.  Baseball's collective bargaining agreement expires at the end of next season, and judging by the antipathy between players and owners we might not have baseball for quite some time.

In this case the owners' nauseating avarice may come to some good because lost in all of the labor strife is the fact that it is probably a profoundly bad idea to attempt to play baseball.  Other leagues that have returned in Taiwan and South Korea and Japan are doing so in countries that quickly quelled the virus and maintain robust testing and tracing procedures to manage further outbreaks whereas in the United States we remain unable to fathom a way of solving a problem without shooting it either with a gun or shooting it with another gun; getting a bunch of baseball players whose entire routines involve constantly emitting spittle and jamming on their crotches etc. seems like it would spell disaster.  The independent American Association, my emails from the Chicago Dogs that continue unceasingly because I once bought tickets on their website tell me, plans on starting play July 3 in three midwestern "pods" hosting several teams.

I cannot imagine an apocalyptic disease scenario that will stop the NFL from trying to play, even if alien spores infect Jerry Jones and turn him into an unstoppable carnivorous plant.

Even as sports leagues sputter to life in fits and starts, the central question on my mind is whether I even miss them.  At the beginning of the quarantine lockdown, amidst chilly weather, confined at home, and in the middle of spring training and the dying moans of terrible local basketball seasons, I found myself starved to just turn on The Game.  I spent a lot of time in March and April watching youtube videos of entire old baseball games just to settle into the comforting rhythms of the game and to psychologically torture myself by listening to Tim McCarver say "actually not a lot of people know this, Joe, but the curve seems to the batter to 'curve' in the air making it harder to hit with those bats."
But virtually everything, including the raging, uncontrolled pandemic, faded into the background during the eruption of protests against police brutality and racism that ignited with the video of a Minneapolis police officer murdering George Floyd.

There are two types of videos that I have seen over the past weeks involving police: in one they stand in futuristic armor gleefully truncheoning people or blasting them in face with chemical weapons and in the other they stand with folded hands behind a union president who is excoriating the big-city mayor who has spent the past month humiliating him or herself by saying "I agree with the truncheoning" for not being obsequious enough while rivulets of foam run down his mustache.  In Chicago, the mayor imposed a curfew, walled off the downtown like a medieval fortress to the point that I expected them to explore the possibility of bringing the alligator back to patrol the Chicago River in case protesters decided to launch a flotilla against the sacred ruins of the River North ESPNZone, and a constant din of helicopters besieging large groups of people most of whom have been walking and holding signs. 

For awhile, in a genuinely unhinged scene, weird unmarked paramilitary units flooded Washington D.C. that appeared be recruited overwhelmingly from car avatar guys who indignantly reply to verified sports personalities tweeting about Colin Kaepernick. 

Some NBA players have questioned whether a return to play makes sense not only in the context of the absurd Stately Virus-Dome boondoggle but during a time of a massive popular surge for civil rights.  Kyrie Irving reportedly argued on a conference call with more than 80 players that the NBA's return could serve as a distraction from the movement.  

The virus's surge through Florida may soon render these discussions moot.  Even the NBA's byzantine and farcical Rules and Regulations in the quarantine zone such as telling players they must discard decks of cards after use or having families spread out masked in the theaters where they may be treated to Disney exclusive sneak preview movies as part of their families' commitment to being biosphpered do not quite fit with players being encouraged to absolutely mash their  crotches into the nearest Plumlee when throwing a violent dunk on him because that is an integral part of the game.

But the other thing at stake is an enormous and unfathomable pile of money for team owners and the corporate consortia that profit from the NBA, the loss or gain of which will make no material difference in any of their lives other than making a number go up and down, and it is almost impossible find any force whether from a pandemic unprecedented in our lifetimes or the streets bursting with calls for social justice that can stop that.

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