The NBA's Big Covid Choice
A chance at changing the conversation
The NBA has a serious problem on its hands. It also has a potential opportunity, a chance at closing the loop it symbolically opened. We’ll get into it, much as I’m wary of entering into this territory, especially given what I’m about to say. Talking Covid, which has killed millions and affected the lives of billions, is as reliable a way to inspire unhinged responses as any. Everyone has been impacted in some way that matters, so emotions run high, understandably. But here we go.
I call up my NBA ops sources and their operative phrase is, “Hanging by a thread.” The NBA’s entire operation is teetering as the Omicron variant advances and positive test results accrue. Here’s the update on players in health and safety protocols:
The Omicron variant, as it spreads throughout the world, is a moving target, but early signs point to it being more contagious and less deadly than the standard strain.
Ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday, the NBA dutifully expanded its testing protocols. Since doing so, the league has been racking up the Covid-positive test results.
If we see a bit more Covid spread, the NBA’s showpiece Christmas extravaganza is very much under threat. That’s the biggest TV day in the sport, an essential element of why ESPN pays the league over a billion dollars every year. Finals MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo now might be out for Xmas if he misses the standard 10 days and same goes for former league MVP James Harden.
Shrug it off if you will, but I’m not certain the NBA can, even if its players are at little personal risk from the disease on account of being young and healthy, with single-digit body fat percentages. Right now, the league is not similarly healthy. The NBA is already suffering a variant-inspired attendance collapse that might end up costing it revenue in the billion range. What happens if the incoming winter Covid flood wipes out the Christmas slate that’s contractually promised to main broadcasters? How stretched out are those massive credit lines that teams took on?
This is the tightening vice the sport finds itself in, even as Steph Curry breaks a record and his Warriors grab ratings. The league is, in some ways, a victim of its own diligence. The NBA tests frequently and positive results trigger mandatory absences. It is getting tied into knots by its own conscientiousness, pushed by its safeguards into an institutionally unsafe position. Unless, to save its skin, the NBA says goodbye to all that. Unless, the NBA decides to announce a massive rollback of testing protocols as part of life in a new era.
Many would regard Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert’s positive Covid test on March 11, 2020, and the ensuing NBA shutdown it triggered, as the moment the disease got “real” in America. It was the beginning of lockdown life, as major institution after major institution followed the NBA’s lead by slamming the brakes on business.
As Ramona Shelburne put it in her retrospective column: “The NBA's decision to shut down started a domino effect across sports and society, bringing the danger presented by the pandemic into stark focus for millions around the country and the world.”
Did we ever really leave that moment? In fits and starts, but not completely. A reopening here, a maskless event there. A prudent rule here, an arbitrary security-theatre measure there. Vaccines inspire relaxation, but then Delta chills the scene. If you live in a city, especially a city in my home state of California, you’ve perhaps never exited the moment. Even if you aren’t weighing disease safety concerns or, God forbid, mourning a loss, you might be working within byzantine and ever-evolving regulations. If you have kids in school, they are almost certainly not having a traditional educational experience.
The NBA actually has an opportunity here to end the precautionary moment, or at least signal its ebb. If commissioner Adam Silver steps forward and announces that his league is ending test protocols and treating this admittedly terrible disease in much the same way we deal with some other respiratory illnesses, that’s a potential cultural shift. The basic plan would be to test players and team officials only if they’re obviously sick (and sit said players if they test positive). And no more of the contact tracing that’s gummed up work behind the scenes of a highly mobile industry. The message could be simple: Look, we can’t functionally operate like it’s 2020; now that the disease is endemic, and vaccines are widely available, we must move into 2022.
This could be an influential move for all the reasons the NBA lockdown was important back in 2020, but now with one new one: The NBA is the archetypal blue state sport. The Covid question has broken along partisan lines, with Democrat-voting spaces far more likely to embrace interventionist measures. If the NBA announces a relaxation, there’s an element of “Nixon goes to China,” a credibility inherent to going against the grain. Such a proclamation grants space if not permission for other non-red world institutions to follow suit and open up despite the surge.
“What about public officials?” you might say. And good point. The NBA postponed games for the Covid-afflicted Chicago Bulls in consultation with that city’s department of public health. If the NBA publicly eschews conventional caution, it could run afoul of such institutions and get shut down by various governments. While that’s a distinct possibility, the shutdown might be coming regardless, based on infections. To borrow a quote from The Departed, “We can become cops or criminals, but when you're facing a loaded gun, what's the difference?” If the NBA actually owns its choice rather than waiting on fate to impose one, it has a chance at getting what it wants from governments. Doyle Brunson once said that the key to poker is “putting a man to a decision.” The NBA might need to put city and state officials to one before understanding its own leverage.
On its face, this would be an impossible move for the NBA in the current moment. An increasingly pervasive spread inspires fear and related lockdown measures, as leaders attempt to one-up one another’s imposed rules. Under the surface, though? There’s widespread exhaustion with our perpetual Covid War, even in deep blue areas. Many people can handle masking — for a while. They didn’t necessarily sign on to do this till the sun burns out. Many favor vaccine mandates, but such an endorsement comes with an expectation that draconian measures return us to normalcy. And where, in our cities, is that normalcy?
Much as one might point to this or that poll favoring immense Covid caution, the dramatically red-skewing election results on November 2 indicate different preferences. From an article on Democrat New Jersey governor Phil Murphy nearly losing his election in a shocking 13-point swing from 2020 presidential results:
In his most candid assessment of his 3-point victory to date, Murphy said some New Jerseyans “feel like government is not connecting with them. They’re sick of masks, being told what to do in terms of vaccines, probably not thrilled with what they sense is going on in Washington, they may have lost a job or a business that went bust — or a loved one, worse yet.”
If we do look to polling, there are indicators of blue world exhaustion. The latest Monmouth poll speaks to an equal level of Covid fatigue between the political tribes.
If the NBA defies the old consensus, it could define the new consensus. The Democratic Party doesn’t want to get crushed behind the pall of constant Covid restrictions; it and many other entities are looking for a way out, a “peace with honor” move, to use a second Nixonian reference in this essay. If someone finally leads the way, many could follow.
Of course, there’s a reason why we have restrictions and it’s one of mortal importance. What about all the deaths? Aren’t I worried about what flouting caution might reap? Yes, I am, which is why I’d encourage the league to deeply study this issue and not just take the word of a Substacker whose biggest hits have been articles on Nike’s incompetence.
But even non-M.D.s can notice that societal leaders are less in control of this illness than their confident imposition of rules and regulations would suggest. Thankfully, vaccinations appear to greatly curb hospitalization and death, but their record at stemming infection looks spotty at best. Ireland, with its world-leading vaccination rate, just got absolutely swamped by Covid, and that was before the Omicron onslaught. As mentioned above, the illness is quickly spreading between theoretically vaccinated NBA players. The disease is, at this point, endemic. It’s never going away. I’m reminded of that Onion headline, “Drugs Win Drug War.” Covid has won and every infection from here on out is just another victory lap.
I’m not trying to be glib about the illness. Personally, I thought the NBA moved too slowly in shutting down at the beginning. Beyond its lethality, Covid has indelibly harmed many others, a fact that perhaps doesn’t get enough media coverage. My neighbor, for example, had to undergo a bilateral lung transplant. He’s a middle-aged father of three, not an elderly cancer patient. However, it happened to him prior to vaccine availability. Now that we have those, should we live as though 2020 never ended?
If you buy that there’s no beating Covid, then the next question is, “What’s the wisdom in running from it?” Obviously there’s wisdom in treating and inhibiting the disease, such as providing vaccinations, while also increasing access to monoclonal antibodies and antivirals. Prophylactic measures like diet and exercise also seem worth promoting. Perhaps existing restrictions should remain at places like convalescent homes, where residents are vulnerable and not entirely in their circumstance by choice. But physically hiding everyone from infection? In perpetuity?
If that’s what we’re doing, I would like to know why, because this is like if they stopped even bothering to give Yossarian a benchmark in Catch-22. What’s the endgame here?
You could accuse me of just callously wanting the NBA games back, but in all honesty, I could give a shit, as evidenced by my never writing about said games. I don’t want the NBA to boldly eschew nonpharmaceutical interventions for the sake of the sport; I want the league to consider it because the only school options for my son include mandatory masking. Is it logical to connect the two? I suppose it is in a world where Rudy Gobert is the pandemic version of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.
The NBA might have less sway in the places that already live as though Covid is dead, but it remains influential outside of that space, a realm that houses the main centers of American power. The league could signal a new era, one in which we stop restricting ourselves to a muted existence. We aren’t escaping the disease, but we could eventually refuse its influence on all matters of public life. That is, if the NBA feels such a move to be responsible under the current paradigm. If it does, and I suspect it does, it should say as much. Adam Silver should speak to a new way forward, for his league, and for everyone else. Today, the NBA hangs by a thread. Tomorrow, it could start a new one.