Opinion: NBA bubble’s fragile environment won’t protect players from horrors outside

The NBA bubble is tremendous in many respects.

It can protect players and staff from COVID-19 and produce an environment that allows the finish of the season amid a pandemic. The work done in that area is commendable and created a blueprint for other sports.

In other respects, the NBA bubble is flawed. It can shield players from a health pandemic but it can’t protect players from other pandemics – racial inequality, social injustice and police brutality. 

Isolated from family and friends for nearly two months, players reached a boiling point following the police shooting of Jacob Blake — an unarmed Black man who was shot seven times in the back and paralyzed — that made them reconsider the value of playing games if their message wasn’t heard widely enough.

It was always a tough ask of players to leave home for at least a month, maybe two and possibly three if a player’s team advanced to the Finals. The Blake shooting made it even more stressful as players were left to process the news, sometimes without the support of those closest to them, while under pressure to constantly comment on the latest horror.

While I can’t understand the depth of Black players’ anguish, frustration and anger, I recognized it. I heard it in George Hill’s voice, Fred VanVleet’s words, Jaylen Brown’s question for America and saw it in the tweets of several players, including LeBron James. Over and over, they have asked to be recognized as human beings and they want us to recognize and understand the struggles of Black people in America. They are more than just athletes here for our entertainment.

LeBron James spent much of his postgame interview time speaking on the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis. (Photo: Kim Klement, USA TODAY Sports)

Players are not naïve to the world and were not expecting change overnight. But the Blake shooting was jarring, and players hadn’t been in the bubble for two months before they had to process another police shooting of an unarmed Black person.

What have they been saying for the past three months, since George Floyd was killed on Memorial Day? Is anyone listening? Who is helping them enact the change they want to see?

It wasn't a surprise players didn’t want to play and ultimately decided not to play. But what next now that players have decided to try and complete the season?

Word out of their meeting Wednesday night was that players wanted action plans from owners. Yes, owners have pledged $300 million over 10 years to support economic empowerment in Black communities. That is a start.

But as Grand Valley State University history professor Louis Moore told USA TODAY Sports, a work stoppage by employees – even a brief one – can make owners and corporate sponsors recognize the power they have to help players put pressure on government officials to bring about change. Players already do a lot for their communities. But sometimes, it’s more than providing meals or school supplies or in James’ case, an entire school.

Owners have political ties that players don’t. And as VanVleet said, it’s not the responsibility of players to solve all of these problems.

Column continues below video:

USA TODAY Sports' Nancy Armour breaks down how the Bucks have dealt with police brutality as an organization in the past.

USA TODAY

Now, will owners step up in that regard? That is unclear. It’s obvious some owners are willing to help more than they have. The owners of the Philadelphia Sixers pledged an additional $10 million to help Black communities in Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey.

Taking a break from games also forces the public to take another look at the issues. Now, as you see the vile comments on Twitter directed at NBA players and Black athletes, not everyone is going to see the light. But some not only eventually get the players’ perspective, they embrace it. Change is hard, and again, slow moving.

So was the temporary stoppage worth it? The players may have benefited in a couple of ways.

The NBA wasn’t the only league to stop play. The Bucks started a movement that carried across several sports – the WNBA, MLB, MLS and finally on Thursday, the NHL — also went without games. That brought a lot of attention to the issues beyond the sports pages and channels as news networks jumped in to cover the unrest.

In remaining in the bubble in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, NBA players retain a very prominent spotlight with reporters every day through the end of the season. For sure, James has his media and social networking platforms to share his message. But players like Hill, VanVleet and Brown don’t have 47 million followers on Twitter or shows on HBO to showcase their voices. Moore believes players can amplify their message much better in the bubble than outside of it when no one is interviewing them on a regular basis.

NBA players have about another six weeks in the bubble – that’s important time in front of reporters and cameras. It’s also a lot of time for another police incident and then what? Well, that will be up to players to decide.

Today, they’re committed to playing. But the bubble remains a fragile environment that is not immune to all the problems going on outside of it and nothing can be guaranteed.

Follow USA TODAY Sports NBA columnist Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt

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