NBA restarts season in the midst of coronavirus pandemic

September 6, 2020 — by Vinay Gollamudi and Michael Wong

Viewers were shocked when the NBA was suspended indefinitely on March 11 due to Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert testing positive for the coronavirus. 

But less than three months later, on June 4, the NBA announced its plan for restarting the season. 

Out of the 30 total teams in the NBA, 22 were invited to play at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Disney World in Orlando, Fla., as part of the bubble.

Several players chose not to travel to the bubble with their respective teams for varying reasons. Some, such as Mavericks center Willie Cauley-Stein and Lakers guard Avery Bradley, wished to be with their families during the pandemic. Others, most notably Wizards guard Bradley Beal and Spurs forward LaMarcus Aldridge, declined to play due to injury. There was also a small but vocal group of players, led by Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving, who were heavily against restarting the season for fear of taking the spotlight away from social justice issues across the country.

As the NBA prepared to restart the season, players worked to ensure that media focus remained on the Black Lives Matter movement. They wore social justice slogans like “I Can’t Breathe” and “Justice Now” on their jerseys, and during interviews, many deflected basketball-related questions to address larger societal issues. Players also held a two-day boycott of games to protest the shooting of Jacob Blake by police in Kenosha, Wisc. Although they held a meeting to discuss canceling the season altogether, players ultimately decided to resume the season and stay in the bubble.

To prepare for the upcoming season, the NBA tested all of their players for COVID-19 in the months leading up to the restart. On June 26, the NBA announced that out of 302 players tested, 16 had tested positive for the coronavirus. However, by July 20 — two days before teams were due to start scrimmages against each other — there were zero positive COVID-19 tests out of 344 players. At the time of writing, there has yet to be a single positive test within the bubble.

This statistic is even more impressive when compared to other major American sports leagues. In late July, 18 players of the Major League Baseball’s Miami Marlins tested positive for the coronavirus. Although the MLB has far more players than the NBA, the league’s 104 positive tests since the season started on Jul. 23 show the disorganization and lack of enforcement of safety guidelines by the MLB. The MLB season is still going on, but it is clear that league officials need to impose stricter rules to prevent a cancellation of the season.

The start of the National Football League season is also imminent, and thus far only 10 players and employees have tested positive for COVID-19. Despite this making up a mere 0.017 percent of all players and personnel tested, it remains to be seen how well current protocol will work once players come in contact with opposing teams from different cities. 

The most prudent option for every sports league looking to resume or begin their season is to follow the path that the NBA has set. This includes an enclosed bubble, daily coronavirus testing for all players and employees, and strict guidelines to prevent players contacting the virus from outside. Although this will be difficult on the larger scale of the MLB and NFL, it needs  to be done for both leagues to safely continue playing games. 

The NBA’s success at containing COVID-19 within the league is no coincidence as they have established strict rules to ensure the safety of players. For example, any player entering the bubble must self-quarantine for 14 days, and any player who exits the bubble for an unauthorized reason must quarantine for a minimum of 10 days upon returning. The NBA has been vigilant in enforcing these policies — Clippers guard Lou Williams, who left the bubble to get food from a club in Atlanta, had to quarantine for 10 days. 

With the extra time players have in the bubble, some have taken to documenting what goes on inside it. Philadelphia 76ers rookie Matisse Thybulle filmed and edited a mini-series called “Welcome to the Bubble” on his YouTube channel. The series chronicles everything from the players’ daily coronavirus tests to the food players receive. NBA fans have received this content well, with the first five videos in Thybulle’s series reaching over 1 million views. 

The NBA is also aiming to simulate the environment of a normal basketball game. In every arena, the league has installed large screens, broadcasted virtual fans and added artificial crowd noise to replicate a regular game as much as possible.

Due to all the unprecedented circumstances, many argue that this year’s NBA champions should not be seen as real champions. However, this argument is not entirely sound, as nearly all championships are won with luck and unexpected events, such as injuries to opposing players.

As the NBA playoffs kick off, they have provided entertainment to alleviate the monotony of the quarantine. Teams are scoring more than they did prior to the break, and tight series and games have already provided thrilling endings. With the success of the restart in isolating the players while continuing the season, the NBA has set the standard for resuming activities during the pandemic.

 

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