The Dangers Behind the NBA’s Decision to Move Toward a Return

The NBA returning so quickly would send an awful message that this country is far closer to normalcy than the data would suggest.
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The NBA is moving closer toward a return, according to reports by both ESPN and The Athletic. The league is heavily considering using Walt Disney World in Orlando as something of a soft bubble where it can resume play without fans at a single site, and players are expected to be called back into their markets beginning on June 1. That the NBA and its players are eager to get back on court is not a mystery—the money at stake for both sides is the biggest motivating factor for both parties. What remains unclear is why the present situation makes any more sense for a return since the pandemic hit the United States and play was stopped.

The NBA’s public reasoning for wanting to play is specious at best. In a phone call with President Trump and other commissioners, Adam Silver said he would love to do whatever he could to help in jump starting the economy. Meanwhile, Wizards owner Ted Leonsis, who also owns the WNBA’s Mystics and NHL’s Capitals, said both the fans and TV networks are “owed” the return of sports. This posturing is a polite way for the league to avoid admitting it doesn’t want to lose billions of dollars of revenue. And it ignores the risks that come with putting players back on the court.

It’s not only the players who will be at risk of contracting the virus as they all return to their respective markets—which obviously include several major cities—and then travel to Orlando to play. It’s their families. It’s the coaches. It’s the training staff. It’s the arena workers. It’s the hotel workers. The Lakers’ Jared Dudley already said Wednesday he doesn’t expect the league to restrict players' movement in and out of the so-called bubble. That means the virus can not only spread easily within the league, but make its way outside as well.

South Korea was only able to resume playing sports thanks to a well-coordinated governmental response, and even then the Korean Baseball Organization has pledged to shut down its league for three weeks if anyone tests positive. Is the NBA prepared to make a similar commitment?

Before sports returned in Korea, the country led the way in governmental response to the coronavirus. Testing was not only widely available, it was fast. Citizens could get drive-through tests and results within 10 minutes, all without leaving their cars. The government used technology to contact trace citizens and quarantine not only people who had contracted the virus, but also anyone who may have come in contact with them. And the country adopted a zero-tolerance isolation policy that essentially separated anyone with Covid-19 from the rest of the general population.

In the United States, testing still lags behind the countries most successful at slowing the spread. Contact tracing is not happening on a large enough scale. And centralized isolation simply isn’t happening at all. The cobbled-together response to the pandemic has made it hard to predict or control in the U.S., and instead of a decline from a peak, the nationwide trend is closer to a plateau of deaths than a steep drop, with more than 1,000 people still dying per day. The NBA returning so quickly would send an awful message—that this country is far closer to normalcy than the data would suggest, and that’s a significant departure from when the league suspended play and arguably opened many Americans’ eyes to the severity of the virus.

The NBA’s partners in this proposed return aren't exactly the most upstanding. Buried in ESPN’s report about the comeback is that the Trump administration has assured North American sports leagues it will help players who are overseas return to the country so they can take part in games. Trump's motivation is painfully obvious: The sooner it looks like America has returned to normal, the sooner he can take credit in time for his re-election campaign. The NBA’s thirst to return will only help the Trump administration obfuscate its botched response to the pandemic and the harsh reality as a result of that inaction. Social distancing was supposed to buy the federal government time to figure out a way to slow down the virus. Since then, Trump has considered disbanding his coronavirus task force, suggested people drink bleach as a cure, and threatened to withhold funds from states whose governors disagree with his politics.

Meanwhile, Florida seems like a particularly dicey state to resume play in. According to data analyzed by the Tampa Bay Times, Florida only avoided a New York-level outbreak in large part because citizens started social distancing before the state government said so. Gov. Ron DeSantis waited until April 1 to issue a stay-at-home order despite pressure from more than 900 medical professionals to do so earlier. Additionally, The Tampa Bay Times reported Floida’s Department of Health tried to suppress the real number of coronavirus deaths being recorded by medical examiners, and the government is also coming under fire for its lack of transparency in coronavirus data reporting. Is this the place really best suited to handle the NBA if the league won’t maintain an incredibly strict bubble?

There's this idea that some writers or pundits are anti-sports. That people don’t want them to return and they are being too alarmist about the virus. It couldn’t be further from the truth. If any population would benefit from the return of sports, it’s the media. People like me could stay at home and write about the games and storylines again, without any risk. (I would love to drop takes about how the NBA would be foolish to give out the Larry O'Brien trophy this year.) With sports back, there would be an interest in our work that doesn’t exist right now, an absence that has already had devastating effects on this industry. But economic concerns of people downwind from sports leagues shouldn’t be quelled by the decisions of the NBA. In an ideal world, our government would be ensuring people without jobs still had healthcare, as well as providing financial support to those affected by the pandemic, as they are doing more capably in other countries.

People are clearly fatigued with the current situation in this country. It’s not easy. It’s boring. The adverse effects on mental health are real. But pretending things are normal, letting sporting events happen before it’s safe for that many people to gather in one place, or opening things up against the advice of public health officials, won’t change the reality any sooner. It’s putting lipstick on a deadly virus. There are no shortcuts to defeating Covid-19.

The NBA playing games again isn’t as simple as putting 10 people on a court. There's a whole ecosystem of staff and personnel that would follow the players. And as currently described, the setup at Disney World wouldn’t be tight enough to prevent an outbreak within the league, or worse, outside of it. The situation in this country has not gotten substantially better since the NBA suspended its season. The only thing that’s changed is the league’s tolerance for losing money.