In the last three days, three all-NBA players got injured or are missing time due to COVID protocols. Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, and Chris Paul have all gone down. Anthony Davis, James Harden, Mike Connelly, and many others have been prevented from playing due to injuries. In 2019, both Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant suffered injuries that kept them out for more than an entire season under the pressure to win a championship. I was particularly upset about that because it put an unofficial asterisk next to my beloved Raptors only championship. Joel Embid is, and Lebron James was, playing injured for their playoff runs. As much as players get injured in one of the most physically demanding major US sports, what we have here is a canary in a coal mine. The coal mine is the media-constituted environment of the NBA. The canary, who would warn of impending disaster, are the injuries.
This year has been especially bad. Top-rated players have missed the highest percentage of games in league history, And it is affecting the quality of the game on the court. The problem, of course, was not just COVID, which forced severe adjustments to the operation of the league in the last 2 seasons; it also was the hurried way in which the 2019/20 NBA Bubble was put together, the reduced off-season, and an incredibly intense 2020-21 season which saw the highest game per day ratio in the history of the league. The players have been pushed beyond what they can feasibly do – and that to maintain TV revenues.
The story of Kawhi is a prophecy of the crux of the matter. Kawhi, in his last year of employment in San Antonio, based on his knowledge of his own body, opted not to play rather than jeopardizing his long-term health. He sacrificed a lot – money, love of the fans – to maintain his health. His judgment went against corporate interests, both San Antonio’s and ESPN’s interest in having him play. But it paid off for him. He got traded into a situation where he could both manage his load and win a championship. And in his trade to the LA Clippers, he eventually got paid.
None of that would have happened if it were up to ESPN. It seems as if the NBA has a corporate problem. And the corporate pressure, applied by multi-billion dollar TV contracts by ESPN to put on a good show and to keep the gravy train flowing, has applied so much pressure that it has sprain Irving’s ankle, done lasting damage to Leonard’s knee, and is making Embid and Harden play on injuries no human should have to endure. This is going to destroy the league. And it will be because mass society, in this case, a majority media interest, will be trying to squeeze water out of a sponge that has no more water left. Lebron James, today, even said so:
As I wrote about in terms of the fan problem the NBA currently has, mass media is corrupting the game, and diminishing what human beings can be.