How Boxing's COVID-19 Problems Foreshadow Trouble for the NBA

Adam Silver and the NBA should pay close attention to what is happening to boxing and its coronavirus problem.
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The NBA is in trouble.

To be clear: I don’t want the NBA to be in trouble. I want the league to restart its season. I want to see 22 teams fight it out for 16 playoff spots and for those 16 teams to stage a memorable postseason. I want the NBA to spend three-plus months in an airtight bubble that protects players, coaches and staffers from COVID-19—and the fallout that comes from someone infected by it.

I just don’t know how they do it.

Boxing, you see, is making me very nervous.

On Thursday, Top Rank was forced to scrap a lightweight fight between Jose Pedraza and Mikkel LesPierre, a matchup that was set to headline Thursday night’s nationally televised show in Las Vegas. Neither Pedraza or LesPierre tested positive, but LesPierre’s manager, Jose Tavares. Nevada’s COVID-19 protocols, which were created jointly with Top Rank, say that if a member of a fighters team tests positive, the fighter must also be removed. It was the third fight Top Rank was forced to scuttle since restarting boxing in Nevada on June 9th.

Understand: Top Rank’s health and safety protocols are very detailed, outlined in a 20-page memo. Fighters are required to complete the final stage of training camp at approved facilities inside the MGM Grand. Testing is conducted regularly. Wristbands are required to move around in quarantined areas. Yet positive tests have popped up. Tavares tested negative when he arrived in Top Rank’s bubble on Saturday. On Wednesday, he tested positive.

There are roughly 150 people in Top Rank’s bubble each week.

The NBA will have well over a thousand.

This isn’t a criticism of the NBA—they are doing everything right. This week the league circulated a 113-page Health and Safety memo. It covers a lot. Testing will be conducted regularly. Movements will be closely monitored. Players will reportedly wear a smart ring that can predict COVID-19 symptoms up to three days in advance. Masks will be required and social distancing extends to activities like ping pong. Doubles games, per the memo, are forbidden.

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But buried on page 44 is an important item: Disney employees will not be required to undergo regular coronavirus testing. Instead, they will be subject to temperature and symptom checks to gain access to the bubble. They won’t have free reign—employees not regularly tested will be required to maintain a six-foot distance from players and staffers—but having untested people roaming makes the bubble more vulnerable.

The NBA is anticipating positive tests, too. “The occurrence of a small or otherwise expected number of COVID-19 cases will not require a decision to suspend or cancel the resumption" of the season, the memo says. But how many cases are “expected?” And what kind of impact will those “expected” cases have on the playoffs? NBA games, even practices, are potential super spreading environments. Players are in close contact. Infection can be passed easily.

This is the looming problem. The NBA requires a player who tests positive to isolate and be treated for at least 14 days. That wipes a player out for a round of the playoffs, maybe more. What happens if two or three players get infected? Or more? The NBA is doing everything it can to protect the integrity of the playoffs, to have them end with a legitimate champion. But the threat of a contender being wiped out by the coronavirus isn’t just possible—it’s closer to likely. The league is about to parachute into a state that threw caution to the wind early in this pandemic, and now is experiencing record spikes in COVID-19 cases. Orange County—where the NBA will set up shop—reported 15.1% rate of positive tests. On June 6, it was 2%.

I understand why the NBA is returning. Money talks, and the league has financial obligations to its television partners. And I believe the league is doing everything possible to ensure a safe environment. But in recent weeks, as the world has been (rightly) swept up in the social justice movement, the COVID-19 crisis has become an afterthought, all while new cases pile up.

What we can learn from boxing is that it’s not a question of if the NBA playoffs will be disrupted by the coronavirus—it’s how much.