COVID-19 on the Court and the Field: the NBA vs the NFL Approach

COVID-19 on the Court and the Field: the NBA vs the NFL Approach

Angela McKinzie ’21, News Editor

Thousands of fans watching in-person and on television waited in eager suspense; it was March 11th at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, OK. Pregame introductions were finished, the tip-off was moments away, and the Oklahoma City Thunder and Utah Jazz were hurriedly led back into their locker rooms. Boos resounded from the crowd, officials offered no explanation, mascots and dance teams made efforts to fill the time. Half-an-hour later, officials declared that the game was canceled “due to unforeseen circumstances.” Fans made for the exits.


Usually, the NBA season begins on October 22nd and ends with the finals on April 15th. This time, however, the season was suspended in March by the National Basketball Association after the Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19. In the beginning, some players thought they should continue playing until the government shut them down, but the basketball organizations thought this approach was irresponsible on their part. Other teams thought they should bar fans from coming to games and continue with the season, but this was also met with opposition because teams like the New York Knicks, Houston Rockets, and Indiana Pacers wanted to continue playing in front of fans, according to a tweet from ESPN. In an interview with CNBC, Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta said: “But you don’t want to play games with no fans. That’s never going to work.” With no compromise in sight, the league decided to place a moratorium or temporary prohibition on all activity until further notice. Some policies were put in place during this period where players could travel out of their market, but they would have to socially distance, give notices of their whereabouts, and then quarantine afterward. As months went by, sports fans became less and less hopeful about seeing the end of the NBA season; to them, there were just too many questions surrounding a new start. How would the players not get sick? Will fans be able to watch in person? How will teams travel to new cities? 


The NBA had an answer: the Bubble. 


On June 17th, the NBA approved the plan to move the last eight games of the regular season and the playoffs to Walt Disney World near Orlando, Florida. The 100-page plan was appropriately nicknamed ‘The Bubble’ because of the extensive medical protocols put in place to ensure that there would not be a COVID outbreak between the teams. So…what is the Bubble, really? 


From July 30th to October 13th, twenty-two of the thirty NBA teams would be isolated at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World. The plan went through almost every possibility and had exact procedures for when problems came up. When players arrived, they had to self-isolate in their hotel rooms until they got two negative tests as a way to ensure that no one came into the Bubble infected.  Players and coaches were tested for COVID-19 regularly after this, and sometimes even daily if it was required. If a player tested positive, then they would be tested again to make sure it was not a false positive; if confirmed, the player would quarantine for 14 days and be given treatment during this period. Because of the trend of cardiovascular and lung damage after contracting the virus, fully recovered players would have to pass multiple cardiac tests during a period of limited exercise before they were even considered to play basketball again. For high-risk players, they could be excused from the Bubble with no dock in pay, but if players refused to go and had no risks associated with the virus, then they will lose game checks for each game they miss. If a player is marked as high risk and still wants to play, then they can challenge the ruling and health physicians will review their medical history before a final decision is made. I think you get the picture–the Bubble was the epitome of health and security during the final games of the NBA season. 


When looking over the precautions for the Bubble, it seems like a big sacrifice to simply finish off the playoffs and finals. As ESPN put it, “All 22 teams were checking in for a stay of at least six weeks, and for two of them, the bubble would be the only place they’d visit for more than three months.” Family members were not allowed into the Bubble until August 31st, and even then they had to quarantine a week before coming into it. The cost to set up the Bubble represents this sacrifice as well with it totaling a little over $150 million to set up all of these provisions for the teams (not to mention the almost $1 billion lost in ticket revenue).


But, the Bubble never popped. After about three months, no one within the Bubble caught COVID-19. 


As the Lakers celebrated their NBA final’s win, the US marveled at this success story; up to this point, coronavirus had never been in the same sentence as ‘success’ and ‘celebration,’ so it was cause for a stunned reaction. Some critics looked down on the NBA because they thought the story represented the privileges of wealth–how could some people not afford to be tested at all, but the teams were able to get tested almost every day just for the sake of sport? However valid these protests were, they were overshadowed by the praises of fans and news outlets who thanked the NBA for adding a semblance of normalcy to their lives. 


Other sports leagues and entertainment industries took note of the NBA’s detailed health plan in an attempt to implement similar tactics into their own reopening proposals. Apparently, the NFL forgot their notebook. 


With the preseason games canceled, the NFL season started on September 10th with the Texans going against the Chiefs. Unlike the NBA and NHL, the NFL has decided to forgo the Bubble method and started the season on time with limited health precautions. If a player tests positive, then they are isolated in a separate room and are not allowed to come into contact with any of the facilities. Once this is done, they are sent to quarantine at home. The return policy differs for asymptomatic positive tests and positive tests with symptoms; if they do not have symptoms, they can come back after ten days OR five days if they receive two negative tests within 24-hours apart. For those with symptoms, they can come back after ten days of quarantine and three days with no symptoms. Even though NFL players and personnel are tested daily, it does not make up for the fact that social distancing and safe practice guidelines are not strictly enforced by some of the teams. 


Looking at these protocols in place, it is no surprise that the NFL has had spikes in cases. As of right now, 15 of the 32 NFL teams have had COVID-19 issues; personnel and players alike are contracting the virus as the season presses forward. The Tennessee Titans have made many headlines as more than 20 members on the team test positive for the virus. Even though other teams have not had as many cases as the Titans, they are well on their way because the numbers for positives and people who have come into contact with positive people are still increasing (Here is a list from CBS sports of more positive players). As a result of the positive cases, many games have been postponed in the season, causing the schedule to change almost every day. To make matters even worse, the individual team stadiums decide how many fans can view the game. Teams like the Minnesota Vikings, San Francisco 49ers, and the Buffalo Bills are not allowing fans into their stadiums; however, other teams are letting certain percentages of spectators like the Titans who are letting 12.5% capacity. Instead of listening to fans and news outlets calling for the NFL to shut down the season, the NFL has decided to fine teams and players who are not adhering to the rules and are considering adding a week to the season to accommodate for the postponed games. 


Now that the NFL has entered into Week 9 of games and the cases are still going up, more and more people are beginning to question if the league can even finish the season as planned. Critics have questioned the intentions of pressing forward in the season: is it because of the love for the sport or the love of money? Ending the season would be a huge detriment to the NFL with the loss totaling to almost 10 billion dollars–$3 billion for player salary compensation and $7 billion from the loss in TV revenue. Money is definitely the main factor in the decision to go forward, but it is also important to note that football is a cornerstone of American culture; by bringing back football, fans can have a distraction from the effects of COVID-19, and many people realize the significance of this, including the current president, Donald Trump, who bragged about bringing it back in the first presidential election. 


Both the NBA and NFL wanted to bring sports back to the American people, but they took different approaches to reach this goal. As America tries to slowly return to normalcy, it is important to keep in mind that public health should not be compromised to meet this transition. The NBA represents what America should strive to look like while the NFL is an example of what we want to avoid/keep in the past. 


On August 27th, the Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder met again at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports Complex to complete “The Game That Never Happened.” For a small piece of time, life felt normal. But on September 10th, the Chiefs and Texans met with COVID-19 cases already looming over them. Two different sports and two different approaches to starting over again after the pandemic hit. Hopefully, the success of the NBA becomes a part of America’s history and not the on-going failure of the NFL. 


NBA Bubble  

100-Page NBA schedule 

NFL Issues 

NFL Issues cont.   

NFL ignoring cases  

NFL Season Start