The Medic: The NBA can’t allow the virus to continue

Columnist graphic for Pratik Thakur

A lot happened since I last talked about sports continuing during the pandemic. The most important development being that vaccinations are now finally being administered across the country. Although vaccine distribution has been slow and there are many more months before it is widely available to the general public, it looks like the United States is heading into the final lap against pandemic. 

This means that leagues should not be relaxing their coronavirus precautions, but instead should be doubling down on their efforts to protect the players and staff as well as their cities.

One example of a league that is starting to be less strict is the NBA, which isn’t a great look since they were previously the gold-standard of finishing a professional sports season during a pandemic.

The NBA’s bubble system — a strategy in which all players participating in the continued season resided within a designated campus in Walt Disney World, which also hosted all of their games — proved to be a major success. Even though ratings were lower than usual, it demonstrated that there was a cautious and effective way to play sports during the pandemic. Meanwhile, other leagues had to cancel and postpone games or force teams to play at a disadvantage. For example, the Denver Broncos had to start a practice-squad wide receiver at quarterback due to a coronavirus outbreak within the team. 

The reality of the bubble being recreated for the entirety of the 2020-21 NBA season was unrealistic. It wasn’t feasible for the NBA to force staff and players to stay at one location again for an extended period of time. Additionally, the league and its teams have to think about revenue, and so by hosting games again at their home stadiums, they can recoup some of the earnings lost from the inability to allow fans at games. 

However, without the security of the bubble, the NBA has fallen into the same circumstances as its professional counterparts. The same league that forced a player to go into quarantine 10 days for picking up a food delivery is now okay with Kyrie Irving, who was seen maskless at a birthday party last weekend, becoming available to play this Monday. 

While Irving ultimately didn’t take the court, it wasn’t out of a lack of caution, it was due to a lack of conditioning. The NBA seems like it’s now back in it for the ratings and are prioritizing attracting viewers over players’ health. 

Consequently, it shouldn’t be surprising that teams with one coronavirus case quickly had an outbreak on their hands. For instance, the Philadelphia 76ers had to play a game with only eight players because of coronavirus precautions and injuries affecting the team. Obviously, this ended up having an effect on their 115-103 loss to the Denver Nuggets because an eight-man squad will inevitably become exhausted.

In the case where there are not enough players available because of coronavirus protocols, the league has responded by simply postponing games to later dates. As of now, 15 games have already been postponed. Considering the NBA season has already been shortened because of the coronavirus, postponing games doesn’t look like the best option moving forward.

On the same note, the NBA’s college counterparts have not been doing the greatest job either. Take our own university, for example. The USC men’s basketball team, who had an amazing six-game winning streak, also had some trouble at the start of the season because three games were postponed or canceled. This issue has hurt many other teams as well across the NCAA. Despite the strict coronavirus protocols and testing procedures by these schools, the virus is still wreaking havoc. 

Thankfully, the NCAA is planning in advance and will have March Madness take place predominantly in Indianapolis with some other games played in the same state. So, once tournament time comes in a couple of months, there will be less travel and hopefully less virus transmission. The tournament’s containment to Indiana greatly reduces the risk of community and travel viral spreading and hopefully means its games can be limited to a month long schedule.

Once the playoffs arrive for the NBA, the association should follow the NCAA’s lead. Usually, it’s assumed that the collegiate level would follow its professional counterpart. But, now the reverse seems true.

The current government outlook suggests that “mid-summer” is the most realistic timeline for the general public to receive vaccinations — right around when the NBA playoffs are happening. It is possible that players and staff can get vaccinated so that the bubble system would not have to be as strict, but we need to wait and see. 

Even though vaccinations appear to be on their way, the virus is still very much present and the sports world should not start relaxing its protocols just because it is a new year. The NBA set the standard on how sports should be played in the United States during the pandemic. Now, they need to maintain proper and safe protocols so that teams and their local communities stay safe.

Pratik Thakur is a sophomore writing about sports and its intersection with health policy during the coronavirus pandemic. His column, “The Medic,” ran every other Wednesday.