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NBA's empty attempt at updating COVID-19 protocols ignores the most pertinent problem

Seerat Sohi
·7-min read

The 2020-21 NBA season, without the protection of a bubble, has been an experiment in the consequences and limits of a controlled movement. On Tuesday, the NBA and NBPA agreed to updated COVID-19 protocols after an increase of cases and postponed games following the holidays. The terms had only been redefined for hours before Oklahoma City Thunder guard George Hill pushed back.

"I'm a grown man. I'm gonna do what I want to do. If I want to go see my family, I'm going to go see my family," Hill said after a loss to the San Antonio Spurs. "They can't tell me I have to stay in a room 24/7. If it's that serious, then maybe we shouldn't be playing. But it's life, no one's going to be able to just cancel their whole life for this game."

The NBA’s additional health and safety protocols

  • Players may no longer have non-team guests in hotel rooms

  • Teams may no longer leave hotels for non-team related activities

  • Players must wear masks in locker rooms and on the bench

  • At home, teams must stay in their homes outside of essential activities and emergencies

  • Physical therapy treatments must be conducted in open spaces with 12 feet between each individual station

  • The pregame locker room meeting cannot exceed 10 minutes

  • On team airplanes, players must be seated in accordance of who they were sitting near on the bench

  • Opposing teams can’t come into contact or mingle after the buzzer

The last two rules try to legislate behavior the unconscious mind falls into even when the conscious mind urges it not to — infractions we’re all attuned to. As we’ve adjusted to new rules, we’ve become familiar with the distance between how we move and how we wish we moved. Arms reflexively rise to shake hands. Masks slip under noses. They get peeled off, seemingly automatically, by coaches who want to be heard — and they want to be heard. You may be able to stop players from fist-bumping in front of cameras, but can you stop them from jerking up and grabbing their teammates after dunks and bad calls? I have my questions, and it’s hardly the most important one.

One rule that didn’t change: the NBA’s contact tracing policy.

After Boston Celtics wing Jayson Tatum entered the league’s health and safety protocol, Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal was pulled out of a game prior to tip-off because he guarded Tatum and spoke with him afterward.

Andre Iguodala #28 of the Miami Heat warms up prior to the game against the Philadelphia 76ers
Players must wear masks in locker rooms and on the bench. (Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

Not sidelined due to contact tracing? Teammates who interacted with Beal and also guarded Tatum at times. Confusion also arose when Memphis Grizzlies center Jonas Valanciunas was pulled in the middle of a game but his matchup, Nets center Jarrett Allen, was not.

The NBA justifies this, according to The Athletic, by using “Second Spectrum player tracking data to establish that players, on average, spend no more than five or six minutes within six feet of another player during any given game.” This is the flimsy needle the NBA threads to thrust forward with the banality of a machine.

I wonder if anyone really believes this, or if they just know there aren’t enough degrees of separation in the NBA for contact tracing to be both earnest and prevent rosters from crumbling beyond utility.

The season was always going to be touch-and-go, but this omission gets to the heart of why today’s rules won’t move the needle: They’re an empty attempt at refinement that ignores the most pertinent problem.

“We wanna play the game. That’s what we love to do,” added Hill. “At the same time, maybe we should reevaluate what we are doing. I just don’t understand some of these rules. We can sweat next to guys for 48 minutes but can’t talk to them afterwards? It makes no sense.”

Is it safe to play NBA games indoors?

Here’s what Timothy Brewer, professor of epidemiology at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, said about basketball’s potential to transmit the virus when I spoke with him last May:

“[Players are] also breathing hard. The harder you breathe the more likely you are to aerosolize droplets. Just like coughing leads to more droplets than talking, breathing hard will lead to more droplets being produced than regular breathing.

“A basketball game typically goes on for over an hour so that is a prolonged period where people are going to be in close contact with each other. That would create a higher risk for transmissions as opposed to either playing outdoors or not allowing people within six feet of each other.”

The CDC’s guidelines also suggest wearing “a mask if feasible, especially when it is difficult to stay less than 6 feet apart from other people and especially indoors, for example in close contact sports such as basketball.”

The risk of transmission is almost inherent to the sport. Basketball is free-flowing, teeming with possibilities. Bigs posting up against guards, guards switched onto bigs, limbs entangled in a messy crunch underneath the rim, bodies crashing for loose balls, a pursuit so ravenous that everything else falls away. To defend is to make someone feel you. No helmets. No pads. No outside air. Very little distance. Basketball is intensely personal. To the participants, to the viewers. To deny the risk of playing basketball is to deny what basketball is.

The truth is an existential threat to the game. Is basketball tenable in the face of a virus that has taught us to beware of intimate interaction? But the truths we don’t want to face are often a gateway to unlikely, maybe rickety, solutions — to mitigation, if not prevention.

First, there’s the matter of playing outside. Now that the NBA is no longer confined to the infrastructure of Walt Disney World, they should be doing this yesterday. The United States is filled to the brim with legendary, aesthetically pleasing courts. Imagine drone shots of Rucker Park in April or Santa Monica in February. Need them to live up to regulations? Construct some. Let them live as a community hub after this season, the rare happy relic to mark a chaotic time.

The league should also seriously consider hiring more personnel to handle logistics. Here’s how ESPN’s Baxter Holmes put it in a sobering report on overworked medical trainers: “Roles that have been largely delegated to team health officials, as outlined in the NBA's 158-page protocols, include testing officer, contact tracing officer, facemask enforcement officer, facility hygiene officer, health education and awareness officer and travel safety officer, among others.” Slippage is only natural when people are overworked.

Damian Lillard #0 of the Portland Trail Blazers guards Kawhi Leonard #2 of the LA Clippers during the first half at Staples Center.
Kawhi Leonard had to wear a mask earlier this NBA season. (Harry How/Getty Images)

Should NBA players have to wear masks on the court?

On Christmas, Clippers star Kawhi Leonard got his teeth knocked out against the Nuggets. Five days later, he returned in a protective mask, an event often marked by goofy ceremony. The memes, masked Kawhi predictions, Terminator jokes. A few times a year, we’ll watch players push through the discomfort of this armor to find a way to play without risking their safety.

Maybe it’s something we should get used to. High school players in North Carolina are wearing masks during games. So are athletes at Boston University. The general takeaway is it sucks, then you get used to it.

If the NBA deems masks necessary, I don’t doubt that a tenable, semi-comfortable face-shield could be engineered — an innovation that could benefit athletes at all levels. It would be unsightly, but what isn’t these days? Dissonance is how we live.

Humans only invent when they have to. The NBA’s failure to rise up the standard it set with the bubble strikes me as a familiar affliction of lethargy. Ten months after the season shut down, after everything shut down, the virus has worn down our defenses, our expectations.

The bubble was a shocking triumph of resourcefulness and creativity, a revelatory example of competence even as the world outside fell apart. Its ambition was fueled by the pursuit of profit, but its success was marked by discipline, attention and care at a time when accountability and safety were a greater public demand. At the time, commissioner Adam Silver was heaped with credit for being the adult in the room. It’s time for those who know better to do better.

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