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The NBA bubble: America’s latest utopia

| Wednesday, August 12, 2020

The NBA is back, baby! 22 teams have been quarantined to finish the 2019-2020 season in the bubble, a strictly regulated isolation zone located at Disney World. (I’ve been keeping track of sentences that sound like absolute nonsense outside of this year, and this is one of them.)

Following the suspension of the season back in March, the NBA started back up just last month at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, which is a part of the Disney World Resort in Orlando, Fla. It’s a bizarre concept for a bizarre year: get all the players, coaches, personnel and reporters in the same spot, rigorously test them, maintain social distancing and everyone should be safe, right? 

So far, right. The bubble has yet to pop. As of Aug. 5, there haven’t been any positive tests for three straight weeks. And the bubble has already brought us so much! It’s hardly a regular season, but with the playoffs starting this upcoming Monday, at least we’ve got something, not to mention great content like Matisse Thybulle’s fantastic vlogs and J.R. Smith severely miscalculating how much underwear he needed for the season. 

But the NBA bubble has also brought us something incredibly special that’s worth looking into –– America’s latest and greatest utopian endeavor.

The NBA bubble aligns remarkably closely with experiments in utopian communal living from 19th century America. These experiments usually consisted of a group that was strictly isolated from the rest of society, with a detailed list of rules designed to keep the community intact and each of its members performing specialized jobs. The NBA bubble, with their intense regulations and singular focus, feels like a modern equivalent.

Every utopia-seeking group had its rallying cry in one way or another. The Shakers and the Rappites were hyper-religious sects, with the former practicing celibacy and pacifism and the latter waiting around to get raptured. Brook Farm was founded by Transcendentalists to promote plain living and human culture. The bubble’s call for unification is similar, just more external: It’s better to have basketball than to not.

If you take the concept of utopia at face value, it seems ill-fitting to call it a perfect community when there are so many complaints from players about life inside the bubble. But these utopian movements have a common thread of societal perfectibility over individual happiness. A community’s operational success, rather than the satisfaction of the individuals within it, is what makes it utopian. The bubble shares in this—its 113-page handbook of health and safety protocols ensures it. The bubble isn’t utopian because players necessarily like that they can only play singles, not doubles, in ping-pong, or that there’s an anonymous line to call to report any protocol violations, but because these rules function to keep the bubble alive.

On a side note, it’s interesting that the bubble is located in Disney World of all places, given Walt Disney’s mild obsession with utopia. EPCOT was supposed to be an actual community, with climate-control and a giant monorail system, instead of a theme park where you can get steak on a paper plate.

But this leads to another interesting question—if the NBA bubble is a utopian endeavor, is it successful? To answer this, we have to think about what determines the success of attempted perfection. If the only metric is general internal functionality, then the bubble is absolutely viable so far. But if we have to account for external pressures, especially the potential good that could be done for the community if the utopia didn’t exist, then the bubble runs into some trouble. Entry into the bubble alone requires a week’s worth of negative tests, and tests subsequently every other day, which will result in an estimated 17,000 tests by the end of the season just on the players. The NBA released a statement in mid-July to assure us that their rigorous testing doesn’t detract from the local community, but just outside the bubble, some Floridians are having to wait 10 to 12 days for their test results. Obviously, there’s no direct link between the NBA’s thorough testing protocols and the lab backlog in Florida, but it seems pretty intuitive that the resources going toward testing players three or four times a week could also be used to help average citizens. So does the bubble fail as a utopia because of all the good it could be doing?

I don’t think it does. The NBA bubble is a successful iteration of the American utopia because it functions internally, and what’s more, it does so for an external purpose. For a community to succeed as a utopia requires not the happiness of its members or the morality of its operations but the viability of its internal functions, and so far, the bubble is one of America’s most successful attempts at communal, utopian living. We can all only wonder for how much longer.

Anyway, go Sixers!

Ella Wisniewski is a junior studying English and Economics. She tries her best not to take herself too seriously. You can reach her at [email protected] or @ellawisn on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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