I'll bet you think this is going to be about the fistfight in Trader Joe's over mask-wearing policy, or maybe about how Taylor Swift is getting heat for a new logo that's too close to another trademark, one owned by a black woman.
Nope, this is about superheroes, and the culture we have built around them.
As you may know, the NBA was faced with either not having a 2020 season or finding some way to have one without the possibility of spreading COVID-19 among players, staff or fans. What they did was fairly amazing, and far more effective than any municipal, state or federal COVID response thus far: They set up shop in Disney World, where an abbreviated season will be played out in what's been called a "bubble." That means no one comes in, no one leaves without being quarantined upon return (i.e. suspended from playing for a period of time). Just good, old-fashioned basketball, played by professional athletes who get paid for, well, playing basketball.
A few weeks ago there were some fairly whiny tweets coming out of the Happiest Place on Earth. Some players were taking pictures of their hermetically-sealed, Disney pre-portioned meal trays and disparaging the treatment to which they were being submitted. One of them, trying to deflect his own primadonna status, wondered aloud if LeBron James was satisfied with his Happy Meal. Spoiler alert: he wasn’t, and has joined several colleagues on social media comparing the quarantine to a prison sentence.
It made me a little peeved at the time, but then slightly peeved is an indicator of normalcy for me, like a body temperature of 98.6. So I let it alone.
Today came an article that caught my eye: No sex, no fans, but the beer is flowing fast in the NBA bubble. How could I not click on that? It sounds suspiciously like my college career!
The article details the measures taken by the league to execute on an ambitious, one of a kind (at least in its magnitude) plan. It’s damned impressive. The players are housed in resort hotels, fed and clothed and entertained, given access to practice and fitness facilities. They are barred from showering together (hardly a hardship in my view), as well as sharing towels, soap or deodorant.
What the hell goes on in NBA locker rooms, can someone tell me?
Anyone who sets foot outside the blockade - I mean perimeter - is flagged for 10 days: quarantine, suspended from play. This treatment is 100% dispassionate and unilateral: the guy who went to pick up takeout got the same 10 days as the guy who received permission to attend a funeral offsite and was spotted on social media frequenting his favorite Atlanta gentleman’s club. Oops.
There are players and others who are accepting the completely unprecedented (how many times in the last 5 months have I written that word?) circumstances with grace and good cheer. A high point is Philly’s own head coach Brett Brown, quoted as saying, "I think what the NBA has done ... in the environment we are all in is spectacularly brilliant. I think it's elite -- I have zero complaints about anything that might prohibit us from doing our job."
Joel Embiid, the team’s undisputed superstar, has been somewhat less positive but nonetheless playful in his public reactions to conditions at Mickey’s Place.
When my kids were younger we were a Disney family. We watched the Disney Channel. We saw The Lion King on Broadway. We knew all the words to the songs in High School Musical I, II and III. My wife and daughter knew the choreography as well. We went to Disney World several times, stayed in several resorts on site and never had a substantive complaint. In fact the only complaint we ever had was when we tried staying at a Disney AFFILIATED (not owned and operated) hotel to save a few bucks. It lasted a night, and the kind folks at WDW hooked us up at a resort on property lickity-split.
Now, Orlando used to be a swamp. How do you think Walt could afford to buy all of it? So a lot of the year it’s hot, and sticky, and generally uncomfortable compared to Florida's Atlantic or Gulf beach towns. But the people there know how to create and sustain a customer experience and, in doing so, take the weather almost completely out of the equation. What other entities in your reality can make the same claim? Weather pisses off everyone, universally, all the time.
Back in the day I would guess we dropped between $3,000 and $5,000 on a Disney World vacation. And we were grateful for every minute, and sad when we left. I assure you, I didn’t make as much money back then as I do now, and so those were hard-earned and carefully saved dollars. Going to Disney meant something.
Baseball is America’s pastime, and the Super Bowl is the biggest sports event of the year (in the US, if not globally), but do you know which professional athletes are the best-paid? I didn’t either. I’ll give you a hint: They are freakishly tall and apparently have a tendency to share each other’s deodorant.
Yup, NBA players earn on average $8.2 million a year. I will let that sink in.
By comparison baseball players make around $4 million and football players about $3.25 million. And NHL players, sadly - probably something to do with the lack of diversity, the high Canadian content, or the exchange rate between the dollar and the loony - only weigh in at around $2.7 million. These are millions of dollars. And yes, they are average, so for every LeBron and Embiid there are guys only pulling in maybe $750,000 or something like that. It’s just math.
But damn. Don’t you hate guys who will take all that money and then whine when you try and feed them, board them, keep them safe (so they can continue to earn millions) and continue to play a game they love, a game they started playing years ago for free?
Yeah, I don’t hate them. It stings, sure. But if someone was willing to pay me $8 million for anything I would probably do it, as long as it was legal, or not incredibly illegal, or illegal with only a small chance of being caught. The idea of getting $8 million a year to do something I loved to do, and was really good at, is almost beyond comprehension. But I admit, these guys deserve to accept every dollar offered to them. If you disagree, you’re not being honest with yourself. Wouldn’t you take the money? Even if you’re a saint, the most charitable person on earth, wouldn’t you take the money and - like Jeff Bezos’ ex-wife - just sprinkle the earth with it, encouraging people and programs of worth to flourish?
What I wonder aloud is, how is it possible we can sustain as a society multiple industries where we pump so much freakin’ money into it, that everyone associated with it gets rich. Remember, the team owners - they’re not altruistic. They are making more than the players, believe-you-me. This is business, not Boys Clubs of America. The sheer volume of money needed to support a cost structure like this is crrrraaaaaaaaaaaazzzzy. Isn’t it?
And OK, the ones who make the most money don’t get it just from their salaries. They get endorsement deals from Nike and Coca-Cola, and they are paid just for being themselves and rubbing a little of their magic brand on generic items and services in need of elevating. It’s outside the formal cost structure but part of the phenomenon.
The phenomenon that builds athletes who come to believe they are superheroes. Professional athletes who begin to believe they are above not only the general population but above the law. People who become comfortable with the fame and the spoils and the entourage and every other indication that the rules we are bound by do not apply.
Look only as far as the headlines to find ill-tempered, spoiled babies who shit on fans and hit on women - sometimes literally - and accept with zero grace the privilege and opportunity afforded them.
Hey, it’s not everyone. It’s far from everyone. I will be the last person, I hope, to try and paint all of anyone with a single brush. But again, I’m not calling out the behavior of these bad actors, really. I’m sounding an alarm about another time-honored construct that, perhaps, has gone beyond its charter and mutated into something unintended. Or, at the very least, undesired.
What’s the answer? Hell I don’t know. Give me $8 million and I will think about it until my brain bleeds.
My family watched Creed II the other night. Spoilers to follow, if anyone cares.
The movie chronicles a rematch of sorts, the son of Ivan Drago, from Rocky IV, versus the son of Apollo Creed, who Drago killed in aforementioned Rocky IV. Drago has fallen on hard times in Mother Russia since Rocky came over and kicked his Siberian ass in his own backyard. Once a national hero, he’s now a historical footnote, relegated to manual labor for low wages and thought of as a historical embarrassment, like Chernobyl, when he’s thought of at all. His mountain of a son, embarking on a promising boxing career, represents the only path back to a life of privilege to which he’d become only briefly accustomed.
I wonder if this dynamic, while Draconian (no pun intended, but it’s a good one, right?), isn’t one way to right this listing ship. If players were as visibly and viscerally crushed and demoralized once their star has gone out as they are worshipped when they are on top, would the system persist? Would the money, particularly corporate money, slide elsewhere, to other less barbaric endeavors? Or would the increased stakes just make it all more interesting and buzzworthy, like Survivor has somehow become the ancestor of Naked and Alone?
Of course, if COVID has anything to do with it, we may not need to fix anything at all. In a world where everything is virtual, I’d rather watch Dwayne Johnson’s Titan Games than an NBA game, any day.