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Is LeBron James Getting Preferential Treatment with NBA's COVID Protocols?

A. Sherrod BlakelyContributor IMay 27, 2021

Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James, right, high-fives Lakers forward Anthony Davis, left, during player introductions prior to Game 2 of their NBA basketball first-round playoff series against the Phoenix Suns Tuesday, May 25, 2021, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

LeBron James has been NBA royalty for as long as he has been in the league.

That's how it is for the 36-year-old, a four-time NBA champion with 17 All-Star selections and a whopping 16 first- (13), second- (two) or third-team All-NBA selections.

So the idea that he is treated differently (read: better) than Kristaps Porzingis should come as a surprise to no one.

If you're talking about a friendly whistle by an official during a game, that's one thing.

But the way the NBA handled James' health and safety protocol violation shortly before addressing a similar violation by Porzingis, raised a lot more questions than answers.

Specifically, how did James wind up with nothing more than a league reprimand while Porzingis was on the hook for a $50,000 fine despite committing a violation that in the eyes of many was similar to what James did?

While there are factors that differentiate the two violations, some league executives contend that James' status was as big or an even bigger contributor to him receiving a less severe punishment than Porzingis.

"It's a given that LeBron, because of who he is, is going to get some things to go his way that don't go that way for others,” said an Eastern Conference executive. "The thing that I struggle with understanding is the whole point of having all these health protocols is to keep players safe, right? Why are there layers to this? If you spell out the rules and the players violate them, why would you (then) risk exposing them to their teammates?"

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Another Eastern Conference front-office official added: "The NBA is trying to have it both ways. They are taking this [coronavirus] seriously; they have from the jump. But they want the players to not feel too restricted by the rules. What you wind up doing, you create more confusion to a process that's already kind of confusing because everything changes so quickly when it comes to what you can do and what you can't."

Porzingis attended a strip club last Sunday following Dallas' Game 1 win over the Los Angeles Clippers, and NBA rules prohibit players from going into a "bar, club, lounge or similar establishment, regardless of player's vaccination status." The NBA quickly went into explaining the distinction shortly after Porzingis' fine was announced, knowing it would inevitably be compared to James' punishment. 

"While we understand the inclination to compare this incident to protocol violations by other players, including LeBron James, those facts are very different," NBA spokesman Mike Bass said in a statement. "LeBron briefly attended an outdoor event related to an individual commercial activity where everyone was either required to be vaccinated or return a negative COVID test. The league reviews each potential protocol violation on a case-by-case basis, and determines quarantines and imposes discipline based on the individual facts and circumstances of each matter."

Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle told reporters: "We've addressed it internally. We obviously accept the league's ruling statement. Other than that, we have no comment on the matter."

As for James' violation, it occurred May 19, before the Los Angeles Lakers defeated the Golden State Warriors in their play-in matchup. 

James reportedly attended a promotional event prior to the game for a brand of tequila he has invested in. Canadian rapper, singer, actor and entrepreneur Drake was in attendance at the outdoor event as well as the Warriors-Lakers game, along with actor Michael B. Jordan. Similar to Porzingis, James' attendance was a violation of the league's health and safety protocol.

So why did Porzingis have to fork over $50,000?

LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 25: Kristaps Porzingis #6 of the Dallas Mavericks arrives to the arena before the game against the LA Clippers during Round 1, Game 2 of the 2021 NBA Playoffs on May 25, 2021 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER
Adam Pantozzi/Getty Images

Straightforward precedent, actually. Houston Rockets guard Kevin Porter Jr. was fined $50,000 for visiting a strip club in Miami last month.

But if Porzingis' attendance at the club posed no real health risk to other players and thus meant he didn't have to be quarantined afterward and is allowed to play, what exactly was the purpose of the fine? Wouldn't a team reprimand essentially be just as good for him?

Not only does the way the league handled the two player violations raise more questions, it also shines a brighter spotlight on how the NBA's health and safety protocols aren't necessarily aligned with the changing protocols in various NBA cities.

For Porzingis, whom ESPN's Tim MacMahon reported is fully vaccinated, he would still be in violation of the league's health and safety protocol at a time when cities are relaxing restrictions for those who are fully vaccinated and federal guidelines are changing quickly. 

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has already provided updated guidance on the matter, indicating that vaccinated people don't need to wear masks "in any setting, except where required by federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial laws, rules, and regulations, including local business and workplace guidance." 

There are several factors still unknown about James' attendance at the outdoor event and those individuals at the strip club when Porzingis was there, complicating determining whether either player violated local guidelines as they relate to outdoor gatherings or indoor bars/clubs in Los Angeles. Technically, customers are expected to wear masks in bars and restaurants whenever they are not drinking. Good luck legislating that gray area for hundreds of players spread across the country.

And let's not forget local laws aren't necessarily the same as those on the books for the state of California, which has been slower than some states to ease some of its health and safety protocols.  

The league's natural pushback on how it has handled James and Porzingis' health and safety protocol violations centers around how the NBA has handled the coronavirus from the first positive test.

The number of positive test results has been relatively low, both inside the bubble to close out last season and for the most part during the 2020-2021 campaign.

According to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, more than 70 percent of NBA players have received a coronavirus vaccine.

For now, the NBA must grapple with optics. There's already a perception that punishments related to health and safety protocols are not equitable among superstar and non-superstar players.

Because right now, the NBA is perceived as a league where stars are given preferential treatment on many levels, both on and off the court. 

And the way the NBA handled James and Porzingis' health and safety protocol violations shows how even the perception of unfair treatment can backfire.

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