Problem Solving

August 2, 2020

The NBA started back up this week, and it’s nice to have it back in my life, even if the whole thing is extremely precarious. And of course, it is extremely precarious — the league is attempting to operate in the middle of a pandemic a few months after shutting down its season. But as I sat there watching not only a pretty amazing logistical effort involving bubbles, fake crowds, and the like, but a well-coordinated, inclusive attempt to recognize the current civil right revival that disproportionately affects their players, I couldn’t help but be impressed. Will the bubble work? No one knows. But if it does work, we’ll look back at what the NBA did and marvel at the effort. It’s that impressive.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, of course, we have baseball and football. Baseball is in the middle of collapsing literally weeks into it’s delayed start to the season, apparently blindsided by the fact that their players are humans who can both contract and spread the highly contagious virus that has plagued the world for months. They took essentially no precautions and did essentially no preparation. Since that’s going so great, football has decided to take a similar approach, leaving all possibilities open (Fans? No fans?) but not really doing anything. 

How different professional sports leagues choose to react to a black swan like this is an interesting experiment because it’s quasi-controlled. The leagues all have basically the same challenges regarding TV money, attendance, insurance, and collective bargaining, admittedly with different specifics regarding the number of players, levels of contact, and things like that. It would have been fascinating to see different approaches for every league (the NBA is by no means perfect), but instead there have really only been two broad approaches that encompass everyone — either do something about the problem, or do nothing.

“That’s not my job” is kind of a weird position to take in general; it’s certainly discouraged (often to an inefficient extreme) in the VC-backed startup world I’ve been in for the last eight years or so. But it’s absolutely crazy when it impacts you so directly. If you’re driving a truck, and another truck jumps the median and starts barreling towards you, do you just plow into him? “Well, he’s in my lane. There was nothing I could do.” You haver to admit that Adam Silver and the NBA, at the very least, turned the wheel. Maybe they’ll drive into a lamp post, or maybe the truck will hit them anyways. But they assessed the impact of a head-on collision, and decided it was probably the worst thing that could happen, so now they’re doing everything they can to avoid it. 

You could ask the same questions of American society in general. We didn’t turn the wheel so much as brace for impact; we threw some money (not much) at the problem, and now that a hundred and fifty thousand people are dead a good chunk of the citizenry are willing to cut the sleeves off an old t-shirt and put one of them over their nose and mouth. But for the most part, the entire response has been either:

  1. there’s no truck
  2. the truck shouldn’t be there
  3. head on collisions only kill people who were about to die anyways
  4. if we turn the wheel we’re going to be late for the movie
  5. the oncoming truck is probably Chinese 

All these responses have two things in common. One, they don’t require any effort — they are all justifications for either doing nothing or changing the subject. Two, they don’t work. The truck still hits you, a pandemic still spreads, and now you’re left to sheepishly drag yourself out of the wreckage, or scream “I WAS RIGHT, THAT TRUCK WAS CHINESE!” while you slowly burn to death in the cabin. 

Smarter, more eloquent, and properly edited people have written about the millions of things wrong with our pandemic response. What scares me is that this isn’t “the perfect storm” to undermine American society. What scares me is that at this point, basically any storm would have done it, because our decision making is now so skewed towards protecting established interests and routines that it’s not that we can’t adapt to a situation that threatens them, it’s that we actively refuse to.