The normalization of the COVID-19 in the NBA isn’t something you’d expect to have to think about–it feels out of character for the league considering their prudence at the onset of the viral disease in America. The NBA was generally celebrated as COVID-19 bursted onto the sports world in early March. Rudy Gobert’s positive test seemed to be the first domino to nationwide shutdown of national sports before leagues began reconsidering how to profit during the pandemic. Of all the major sports leagues, the NBA’s concoction of the bubble idea, where players could be blocked from the outside world as much as possible while having frequent testing, was largely deemed a success. The league did not have positive tests once people who were previously positive were integrated into the bubble, and the playoffs had plenty of exciting moments, outside of that one second round series we won’t talk about.
The NBA bubble turned out to be a welcomed distraction for me, even with added Clippers sorrow. However, I did not approve of it then. I sure as hell do not approve of it now.
I am also a physician. I finished residency at the end of July, and while I was fortunate enough to not tend to COVID units as during my time in residency my program tried to protect their residents who were not working in Critical Care, I saw the effect of COVID-19 on hospitals. On staff. On caregivers. Protocol changed every day. Seeing any patient in the ER was anxiety riddled. Availability of tests fluctuated on a weekly basis and changed often. I talked about COVID-19 care extensively with exhausted Hospitalists that were learning on the fly and scared for their safety. I watched outside of Critical Care beds, where intubated patients lay and hope seemed scarce. The turnaround from stability to intubation was staggering. And this is absolutely nowhere near how hospitals are now. Nurses consider the time I was there as the good old days compared to how things are now.
Being a Clippers fan is one of the most immediate things most of my friends will tell you about me. I love doing our podcast, Robert Flom and I have been doing it for years now. I enjoyed doing the podcasts during the Bubble, even though ethically I felt extremely conflicted about the existence of major sports. While the Bubble did prove to be relatively safe, I felt the resources siphoned by the league were best spent elsewhere. Relatively speaking, I think they did fairly well continuing their business, but it is absolutely a business. Watching the MLB limp towards their finish line, it was nice to know at least the NBA felt a bit more responsible.
But that has all gone out the window. While there is an extensive 134 page on COVID protocol with the expectation that people will get the virus and early success with player testing, the Clippers were touched by COVID protocols fresh off their first preseason game, with Chauncey Billups and Reggie Jackson having to miss the second game along with multiple Lakers. Jackson and Billups have since returned to the Clippers, but the general dread in between their return and the concern of exposure to others is very real. On Day 2 of the regular season, the first day with a full sleight of games, a playoff rematch between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Houston Rockets was postponed as the Rockets did not have the league minimum 8 players to play the game. Three players had inconclusive or positive tests, four others have been quarantined under the contact tracing protocol, and Chris Clemons was unavailable due to injury.
A peek into the incident shows that a positive result came from Kenyon Martin Jr., and this lead to multiple players being quarantined due to contact tracing, including comeback stars John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins as they were getting haircuts with Martin Jr. recently. Life outside the bubble feels like it will be littered with events like this that could lead to more game postponements, as variables are increasingly difficult to maintain. Whereas the NBA had been trailblazing in the bubble, they’re following suit with the other major sports leagues on how they are conducting the season. The results elsewhere in sports have not been particularly encouraging, including the Duke’s women national basketball team outright ending their season due to safety concerns.
With the vaccination beginning its roll out during the preseason, it only makes the timing of the season all the more incredible. Much has been documented about how much money the league will lose postponing/shortening the season, but with vaccinations only getting underway as December closes, it makes you wonder how much the league, like every other major sports organization has demonstrated, values dollars over safety. How much a Christmas NBA ranks over a further delaying of the season in the height of the pandemic. Paul George was recently quoted essentially expecting positive cases to simply be the norm, and the protocol laid out by the NBA would agree with him.
The NBA is absolutely a business. It is hard to blame players for wanting to play with their livelihood on the line. Players are prideful, and money does absolutely talk. But you do not need to feel guilty that, even though you love the Clippers, you feel conflicted about this season. About sports. This year has been exceptional in so many ways, and while you might enjoy watching George torching the Lakers and Nuggets out the gate, you can question why he and so many others are putting themselves at risk to put a ball in the hoop.
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