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Greg Cote

Backlash over NBA testing for coronavirus mirrors growing anxiety, new national mood | Opinion

The Brooklyn Nets and some other NBA teams have been testing players and staff for the COVID-19 coronavirus as a precaution — even those who have showed no symptoms.

It might be understandable in that seven of the league’s players have tested positive, including four Nets, superstar Kevin Durant among them. So it might figure the first major sport to shut down would be aggressive in containing this outbreak in its own extended family.

Controversy has ensued

The mayor of New York City, home to one-third of Americans who have tested positive, has criticized the NBA, with the league and its players union having to defend themselves. The public outcry has centered on privilege — the idea the well-connected or wealthy can access test kits that are in such short supply and desperate demand.

NYC mayor Bill de Blasio made an issue of it Tuesday after the Nets announced four of their players had tested positive.

“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,” wrote de Blasio in a Tweet. “Tests should not be for the wealthy, but for the sick.”

It came to light the Nets paid a private company to conduct the tests, only underlining the idea wealth and privilege gets you to the front of the line ahead of millions waiting.

National Basketball Players Association executive director Michele Roberts countered by saying “there is nothing irresponsible about trying to get the tests,” instead blaming the federal government for the scarcity of them.

Let’s not demonize either side in this.

De Blasio, at the new center of this pandemic’s reach into America, makes an undeniably legitimate point on behalf of his residents as his city is increasingly hard hit by the coronavirus and the shortage of testing.

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In turn it also seems harsh to fault the NBA or anybody else for trying to do whatever it can to protect itself.

There is something larger at play in this festering into a controversy.

It is anxiety, the new national mood.

It is the not knowing.

How bad will this get?

When will it end?

There are grave reported estimates that hundreds of thousands could die from this pandemic in the U.S. alone in the coming year.

Now I love sports. I have missed the games, the sound of cheering, since the nearly universal, indefinite shutdown of sports last week as health officials warned of the danger of large public gatherings. Since social distancing and self-quarantining changed everything.

But, increasingly, at least for me and I’m sure for many, missing live sports is dropping fast on the list of my concerns.

When NBA commissioner Adam Silver talks about maybe staging a charity game as a “diversion” for fans missing their basketball, I believe he is overestimating the importance of sports in the new context of everything else going on.

As of early Thursday, reported coronavirus cases in the U.S. neared 9,000, with deaths surpassing 150. Meanwhile on South Beach, spring breakers were still congregating and partying, seemingly unable to not socialize. Oblivious or reckless, their selfishness is equal, the danger of it is the same.

As de Blasio, the mayor of his largest city, weighs whether or not to institute a complete shutdown and mandate that everyone stay home, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said this Thursday on MSNBC:

“There’s a bigger point. We’re battling the virus. We’re also battling the fear and the panic. And the fear and the panic can be worse than the virus.”

In other words, as the pandemic’s reach into America intensifies, how will we handle it as a people? Do we have the collective resolve to avoid chaos? America has faced no greater challenge in my lifetime.

Sports and the absence of it just seems increasingly small right now.

Based on most trajectories and timelines being reported, I cannot envision the NBA or NHL seasons resuming and finishing — at least not with fans attending. I wonder if Major League Soccer’s season will resume, or if baseball will have a season at all. I begin to seriously wonder if this threat will have ended in time for football in the fall.

I begin to doubt sports will resume at all this calendar year.

We have far bigger concerns.

We long for the eventual return of simple normalcy, and we have to believe we will get there. We’ll get back, someday, to the luxury of believing our favorite team -- our sports and games -- were just about the most important thing on Earth.

This story was originally published March 19, 2020 12:56 PM.

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