In March 2020, one positive Covid-19 case, Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert, put the NBA season on hold. The league canceled games, and entered a “bubble” alongside the WNBA at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando. The move sent an unmistakable message to the United States that the “normal” world was over, that we would need to reimagine our lives to minimize contagion and death.
Now, after a period of relative relief, we have Delta and Omicron raging through the population. The sports world is again sending a message to the broader populace about how we should respond to this devastating moment—and this one could be even more influential than the one from March, because it is something that people are desperate to hear. The NBA, NFL, and other sports leagues have decided that no matter how contagious these new variants of Covid-19 appear to be and no matter how little we know about its effects, the show will go on.
The new playbook is geared toward making sure the games, each one a potential super-spreader event, are played in stadiums and arenas filled with fans. The rules are aimed at keeping the season moving, no matter the risk to fans, players, club employees, and the rest of the world. The NBA has canceled or rescheduled a few games because of Covid-19 outbreaks among multiple teams. (Right now more than 70 players are n the NBA’s Covid-19 health and safety protocols!) In the face of this, the league has decided that someone will be taking the court even if a team has to play a fifth-string guard pulled off the street. It is not discussing limiting seating in arenas or retreating back to the bubble. It has decided that the television money and gate receipts are worth not only a probable increased spread of the contagion but also the possible devaluing of their product. Seeing G-League backbenchers at LeBron James prices could get old for fans fast. Yet the league is saying, “Credibility to the season, be damned!”
In the NFL, it is even more dystopian. It is announcing a stricter policy on masking in team headquarters and other preventive moves on the margins, but this is a league desperate to finish its season. Billions hang in the balance. It has decided therefore to reduce the frequency with which vaccinated asymptomatic players and personnel are tested. This looks to be what sportscaster Corey Erdmann calls wryly, “The Florida approach: If we don’t test, we won’t know. Crisis averted.”
The NFL has also now put the onus on players to alert medical staff if they are feeling symptomatic. In other words, a league in which players routinely mask injuries—Get tough! Man up!—in order to be able to take the field, is now asking them to voluntarily report themselves. The league is betting—even depending—on that code of macho quiet suffering to hold sway. If it doesn’t and players report their Covid symptoms, the playoffs collapse. If it does, everyone will just play through it and deal with the aftermath in February. (This testing method is, of course, also saying that if you are asymptomatic, we’d rather not know.)
Another aspect of this coming disaster that is that this move toward viral barbarism is not being exclusively pushed by ownership and the offices of the various commissioners. Everything mentioned above was negotiated with the players associations, which, according to people to whom I have spoken, is less about coziness with management than pressure from players to actually play. This is especially the case in the NFL, where careers are short and contracts are not guaranteed. There’s also, and everyone is feeling it, pressure coming from fans. Nobody wants to go back to the way things were last March 2020, no matter how necessary it may be. The desire by fans to be in the stands and feel like everything is going back to normal is a powerful narcotic.
What is needed is vaccine mandates, constant testing of all personnel, and a pause in the action. Then, perhaps in a month, we can see where we’re at. (We don’t even know anything yet about the extent of the burden Omicron will place upon hospitalization. That might be nice to have a sense of, before having potential super-spreader events every night!) To take care of this damn virus, we need to break our addiction to distraction, something I certainly suffer from, and at least for a moment, stop playing games.