The NBA’s All-Star Weekend Decision Is Going to Get People Killed
Thousands of fans flocking to Atlanta will have devastating consequences
On Friday night I went to pick up food from a couple of restaurants at Cumberland Mall right outside of Atlanta. It might be hard for you to visualize what I saw because it’s so foreign to what so many Americans are experiencing right now, but here goes: the first restaurant was packed inside, with zero seating restrictions. Patrons sat clustered in booths and shoulder-to-shoulder at the bar, hardly a mask in sight. The next restaurant was not only packed, but its waiting area was standing room only. As I was waiting for my food, I kept walking around trying to find a way to stay six feet away from everyone. Even that was difficult—the mall itself was full. The parking lot barely had any vacant spots. It looked like Black Friday.
Atlanta is in a wide-open state, and has been since Georgia governor Brian Kemp put business over lives, lifting many restrictions in April, when Covid had barely begun to surge, and allowing restaurants to open at full capacity starting in June. In both April and June, the 14-day average of new cases in both Cobb and Fulton County was in the mid-40s; today, it’s 10 times higher. It just doesn’t feel safe to be indoors anywhere near Atlanta.
Despite that, the NBA is planning to bring an All-Star game to the city in a month. I don’t know how else to say this: the decision is going to get people killed.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver was lauded last summer for the NBA Bubble— an experiment based on science and cooperation that saw the shortened season and playoffs take place in isolation in Orlando, Florida. The league put on months of basketball without a Covid outbreak or players missing time. Silver and NBA became exemplars of holding live sports in America safely, especially as the NFL and MLB were looking like irresponsible disasters.
But no good deed goes unpunished. The NBA’s precautions led to a financial crunch, one the league tried to recover from by rushing back with a new season before Christmas to avoid more losses. Executives implemented inconsistent, nonsensical rules (players can guard each other for 45 minutes but they can’t hang out for 30 seconds after the game?), forced teams to play with just eight available players, and just last week removed Kevin Durant from a game for Covid protocols in the 4th quarter … after he’d already competed with, and sweated all over, players on the court. Dozens of players have tested positive; numerous games have been postponed.
Amid all of this turmoil, Adam Silver and the league have decided to have an All-Star Game in Atlanta in the middle of the season, in the middle of a pandemic, in the middle of one of the most open big cities in America. The plan will bring dozens of players to Atlanta while the rest of the athletes in the league are allowed to travel the country—then reconvene days later to continue the season. It’s clear this is all a money grab by the league trying to recoup more of the losses from last season, player health be damned.
While the league may think it has a plan to keep its players safe for the event and beyond, an All-Star Weekend full of parties and gatherings in a city with little to no COVID restrictions is going to create hundreds of super spreader events. As epidemiologists have put it, we are in an arms race between vaccines and variant strains—and slapping a citywide petri dish of mutations in the middle of that race is more than dangerous. It’s devastating. Sure, the NBA can maintain plausible deniability by saying it isn’t directly responsible for the day parties and Magic City nights during All-Star Weekend, but that’s disingenuous at best, and recklessly deceitful at worst. Especially after we’ve seen the crowds in Tampa for the Super Bowl.
For what it’s worth, it seems like zero NBA players even want to participate in this farce. LeBron called it “a slap in the face,” and other players have followed suit. Nobody wants this except for billionaires who have gotten richer while the rest of the country has felt the wrath of Covid-19’s worst cruelties.
The NBA is the Blackest league with the Blackest fan base, which means the people who actually make the NBA what it is represent the community most victimized by the pandemic—a pandemic that the league is now aiding and abetting. The decision to go forward with an All-Star Weekend is going to define Adam Silver’s legacy, but most importantly it’s going to be the difference between people living and dying.