s other sports leagues went through myriad challenges as they resumed this year, the NBA proved that it was not only possible to safely play sports amid a pandemic, but that there was now a blueprint for safely returning to normal, as long as you have the funds. The league spent $180m creating an isolated “bubble” at Disney World in Florida, and completed the 2019-20 season with no new positive Covid-19 tests once play resumed at the end of July. The NHL and MLB reacted with bubbles of their own, and journalists wrote stories with headlines such as “What We Can Learn About Covid-19 Safety From the NBA.”
But as the new NBA season approaches, the league is throwing caution to the wind. Despite the United States experiencing a third wave of coronavirus, with more than 200,000 new reported cases a day (compared with fewer than 70,000 when the NBA began its bubble in late July) the 2020-21 season will begin on 22 December. It will not take place inside of a bubble. Instead, teams will fly (privately) across the country during a 72-game schedule, staying in hotels and, in some cases, even playing in front of fans.
That’s not to say the NBA doesn’t have safety protocols in place – it has 139 pages of them in a memo. NBA commissioner Adam Silver is at least trying to create a relatively safe environment given the circumstances: players and team personnel will be tested daily, must wear masks whenever possible, and will be able to phone a hotline to anonymously report any violations of the protocols. The NBA will also test household members of players and staff twice a week and will discipline players and teams that violate the rules. In addition, the NBA is only releasing half of the schedule at a time, giving the league as much flexibility as possible in the event that the pandemic in the United States changes over the course of the season.
But the harsh reality of the NBA’s restart is buried deep within that memo on page 118: “It is likely that some staff, players, and other participants in the 2020-21 season nonetheless will test positive or contract Covid-19, particularly as the virus remains prevalent in particular team markets and surrounding communities.”The NBA acknowledging that some league members are “likely” to contract Covid-19 is unfortunate, especially considering the long-term health effects associated with the virus. While we tend to think of those infected as either “survivors” or “casualties” – with most athletes ending up among the former – the reality is much more complicated. For a start, many “survivors” experience long-term damage to their hearts, brains, and lungs. And those who think that NBA players are immune to serious long-term damage from Covid because they are young men at the peak of physical fitness may want to think again. Sport Illustrated reported one college football team doctor who was aware of 10 Covid-related heart issues on top-level teams. In MLB, 27-year-old Boston Red Sox pitcher Eduardo Rodríguez, appeared to be fine after testing positive for Covid in early July, only to be later diagnosed with myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart that has been regularly been found in recovered coronavirus patients. Meanwhile, in the NFL, Jacksonville Jaguars running back Ryquell Armstead, who is 23, is reported to have been hospitalized twice after testing positive for the virus.
NBA teams’ history of pressuring players to return to the court before they are fully healthy is worrisome according to Matthew Martinez, a consulting cardiologist for the National Basketball Players Association. Martinez told ESPN that the key to heart health after a positive test is rest, because doctors believe that “the amount of cardiac damage can increase if you continue to exercise in the face of an active infection.”There is also the psychiatric component of Covid-19. Aside from the heightened levels of anxiety many are already experiencing during the pandemic, studies show that testing positive for Covid-19 can be harmful to one’s mental health. One global study found that “Covid-19 survivors have a significantly higher rate of psychiatric disorders [including depression, anxiety, and PTSD], dementia, and insomnia” compared to survivors of influenza or other respiratory tract infections. This is especially concerning given that insomnia and mental illness are already prevalent in the NBA.The NBA should be closely monitoring the cautionary tale that is the NFL. Despite many of the same protocols being put in place before its season, the NFL had already recorded 426 confirmed positive cases among players and personnel by the end of November. This has led to facilities being shut down, teams being fined, and games being rescheduled and potentially even forfeit. Last week, the Denver Broncos had to play a back-up wide receiver at quarterback because all of their regular quarterbacks were in isolation.
Sure, NFL rosters carry significantly more players than NBA teams, but basketball is a much more intimate sport that is played indoors without any protective equipment. Plus, unlike NFL teams who play once a week, this season’s NBA schedule is more compact than ever, with teams regularly playing back-to-backs, giving the league less time to catch the virus in between games, so that one false-negative test could lead to a team-wide or even league-wide outbreak.
The NBA’s strategy puts a lot of trust in everyone involved, relying on players and personnel to adhere to the safety protocols.
“There’s certainly more freedom than there was in the bubble, but we’re going to have to use very, very good judgment to keep this moving,” said Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “The responsibility falls on each of us, individually, to make sure we’re following all the protocols. I hope that everybody has their own health and safety [interests] and the health and safety of their family first and foremost as kind of how they’re moving around their day.”
But based on the disregard some players have already shown for masks, the fact that many teams are located in Covid-19 hotspots, and the results from the initial phase of testing – where 48 of 546 players returned positive tests – this seems like an inherently risky strategy. This isn’t to suggest that the NBA should cancel the 2020-21 season or even go back to a bubble concept. After all, there are many who depend on the NBA to make a living, from millionaire players to stadium workers and security staff on minimum wage. But there are alternatives.
The NBA has the financial safety net to at least hold off for a few more months until the surge in Covid cases eases off, and vaccines become more widely available. Even if the NBA doesn’t want to wait for a vaccine, it can ban fans from arenas and reduce travel, by playing more intra-division/conference games in baseball-style series.
It’s possible that the NBA will prove the skeptics wrong just as it did with the bubble, but its strategy isn’t nearly as thorough this time around. Now, the same league that set out to become a distraction from a polarized nation and its unsuccessful response to a pandemic risks becoming a grim reminder of it instead.