Two-time NBA All-Star and three-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert may forever be known as the player who touched the microphone during the coronavirus pandemic.
After the 27-year-old Utah Jazz Center was publicly diagnosed with COVID-19, people laughed and the world echoed a chorus of I told you so’s. Following his positive results, NBA teams quickly acquired early testing for their players and the sanctimony turned to full-throated condemnation.
New York City mayor, Bill De Blasio said in response to the Brooklyn Nets early testing, “with all due respect, an entire NBA team should NOT get tested for COVID-19 while there are critically ill patients waiting to be tested. Tests should not be for the wealthy, but for the sick”.
De Blasio led the charge and others followed. Americans were upset that certain populations were denied access to the tests and it was the multi-million dollar athletes that received preferential medical treatment.
On some level, they weren’t wrong, but the vitriol and hostility that was directed at Gobert and the athletes of the NBA is nothing more than a violent form of misplaced anger and thinly veiled white supremacy.
It’s not their fault.
Sure, Rudy shouldn’t have been so cavalier about the coronavirus and he definitely shouldn’t have touched the microphone. But, it is hard to blame the young man in a time when government officials were still underestimating the impact the virus would have on the world. We all make mistakes. And while not all of us apologize for those mistakes his apology was issued around the same time Spring Breakers on Florida beaches were living their best life at a time the rest of America knew better.
The first positive test results came back from one of those party-goers. The cases are likely to crop up en masse. Now, there’s a group that deserves some vitriol.
Beyond Rudy’s “big” mistake the other NBA players that received treatment did so out of contractual obligation and common sense. There’s not a single one of us who would turn down free testing had we been in the same position.
But, the visuality of an NBA player is, unfortunately, a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it grants them access to the best standards of living the world has to offer, but on the other, they endure all sorts of hatred they haven’t earned.
Most fans could name the starting five of their favorite basketball team, but couldn’t tell you the name of the team owners or pick them out of a lineup. The visual image of the NBA player thus becomes a stand-in for the actions of owners and executive management who are the real perpetrators of this crime. So, when an owner makes the decision to get their players tested early, it is the players who receive the criticism and the public animosity generated through the inequity of capitalism is configured in a way that the ones responsible for perpetuating the inequalities never get the blame.
The problem starts way before Rudy Gobert. And at a deeper level, it is illustrative to compare the response a group of mostly African American males received to the treatment of Tom Hanks who along with his wife tested positive for Corona while in Australia.
When a famous, white actor is above the same critique as the non-white basketball players it is an example of how comfortable society is reinforcing the message of white superiority, not an indication of how much they actually care about the poor.
Yes, professional athletes deserve preferential treatment.
There are few millionaires who deserve it more. The sheer profit owners generate from the player’s physical and psychological labor is offensive in comparison to the average NBA player’s paycheck. Getting access to things that others don’t may upset a lot of (mostly white) people, but the players have unquestionably earned those favors.
NBA athletes, along with every other professional player in the country unify us in ways that nobody else can. They provide a sense of hope and a need for the common good that today’s politicians are incapable of achieving. In this way, they are more important than the people elected to lead our country.
Factor in the trajectory of the players who came from impoverished livelihoods and you have even more of a reason to chill. 1 in 3 players defies the odds to make it in the league and the ones that don’t set positive examples for millions of youth (See: Lebron and his Success school or Wade and his daughter Zaya).
Professional athletes are individuals who are rewarded for exceptional play and choose to be agents of change in their communities. They don’t owe us a thing. And in fact, we likely owe them something in return, a little humanization and preferential access to medical testing aren’t asking a lot.
They are the leaders of our cultural generation. And we need them alive.
The coronavirus has exposed a weakness in capitalism. This time of crisis has clarified how the rich get richer and the poor get left wondering if they have a life-threatening illness. As unwelcome as this newfound chaos is for most people, it is not new.
Before the Coronavirus pandemic, in a time when the economy as “booming” and the unemployment rate was low there was and always has been a pandemic for the poor, a societal illness that gets even more complicated for people of color. For many, we are living a new normal, but for impoverished populations, these new conditions are indistinguishable from the old ones.
But, it takes an athlete to expose those inequities. Kaepernick and the hundreds of NFL athletes who kneeled during the anthem brought awareness to the danger gratuitous, police violence represents to black communities.
The same people rolling their eyes about NBA athletes receiving preferential treatment are the same people closing their eyes when asked about their own preferred status under everyday capitalism.
Professional athletes are not much different than your average worker that deserves fair and equitable treatment. We all would want the same for ourselves and our families. Until the focus of outrage is directed at indicting the people that need inequality in order function our professional athletes deserve early access to life-saving medical treatment, even if it was a contaminated microphone that began the ordeal.