Contact Tracing: The NBA Has Spent This Season Caught Between Its Moral And Business Compass

Contact Tracing is a three-part series examining the decisions the NBA has made in a year since the 2019-20 season was suspended due to COVID-19.

Part 1: What We Can Learn From The Challenges And Pitfalls Of Remote Sports Media
Part 2: The Curious Case Of Soft Tissue Injuries In The NBA

From the night the pandemic arrived on the NBA’s doorstep, settling into an arena in Oklahoma City a year ago, the response from the league was firm, with a domino effect throughout the sports world. On March 12, 2020, the day after the Jazz-Thunder postponement that saw the 2019-20 season suspended, the NBA released a set of policies restricting players from group workouts and practice, as well as requiring them to remain in the home markets of their teams for six days. Players on teams that had played the Jazz within 10 days of March 11 were advised to self-isolate for two weeks. Another 24 hours later and the season moratorium was extended to April 10, which eventually stretched to May 1 in a statement from Adam Silver, ultimately shifting to the decision by the league’s board of governors to resume at Disney, in a Bubble, on July 30.

In those four months between stop and restart, the NBA would springboard into COVID-19 relief efforts. NBA Together, the league’s targeted pandemic response initiative, was launched eight days after games stopped and was by and large more focused on early public health messaging than many municipal U.S. governments and the Trump administration. The league urged the use of science-based information in the early and particularly anxiety ridden period of the pandemic, with the handful of players who had tested positive hosting live Q&As in an effort to share information.

By the end of April 2020, the NBA had raised nearly $80 million internally to support frontline response efforts, with a focus on vulnerable communities experiencing higher infection and fatality rates from the virus. Steph Curry interviewed Dr. Anthony Fauci, Kevin Love helped shape the mental health focus of NBA Together, front offices and players donated money to offset job loss of arena workers in their markets. Even if the end goal had always been an eventual return to play, there was a collective sense of care and urgency from within, that good and actionable work could be done while waiting.

The Orlando Bubble, as meticulously made as it was to withstand the outside world (the virus and to some degree the social unrest in cities worldwide all summer) and make up for stalled revenue, still put the health and wellbeing of players at the center of its shiny, idyllic circle.

In contrast, this season has seen the NBA attempt to toe the line of normalcy and rather than continue to err on the side of concentrated caution, there’s been a perceptible shift in approach. Returning to a Bubble was deemed a non-starter by players for its psychological toll and by the league for its financial one, but returning to home markets, fans and travel signaled a shift toward assuming risks in exchange for revenue.

“The big issue, earlier in the year, was how did the owners who are largely white, overwhelmingly white, keep their players motivated?” Alison Kemper, associate professor specializing in business ethics at Ryerson University’s Ted Rogers School of Management says. “And so, we saw a lot of support for Black Lives Matter, we saw a lot of support for using the stadiums as voter registration sites. A lot of messaging around Black Lives Matter. So, they could do that without risking anything really. They could become closer to their audiences and to their players, it didn’t cost them much. It was a way of staying in a different game. But how long can you own a very expensive asset, like an NBA team, without any revenue coming in?”

In October, Tim Reynolds reported that a source inside the league estimated a loss of $1.5 billion in revenue projections for the 2019-20 season. If the 2020-21 season were bumped from mid-January to December, there was potential for the NBA to generate a difference of $500 million to offset some of that loss. Game 6 of the Finals had been played little over a week before plans for a Dec. 22 start were made public, which means the conversations that informed them were likely being held well before LeBron James hoisted his first trophy as a Laker. Some players hadn’t been home with their families in as long as three months, let alone had any downtime to recoup, when next season was suddenly moved up a month.

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Money wasn’t the only cause for a sense of accelerated alarm from the league; with 50,000 Americans testing positive for coronavirus each day at the beginning of October, a number that would accelerate to 75,000 by the end of the month, infection rates were on the rise. Initially, Adam Silver had cautioned that the current season’s start would “be better off getting into January” until it was clear what the impacts of a potential second wave would be, especially when it came to gameplay, fans in attendance, and the general logistics of holding a regular season out of the bubble. But when the decision was made to announce the late December start date on Nov. 10 — less than a month after Silver had admitted December was “feeling a little bit early to me” — the number of new daily cases had hit 140,000 in the U.S. and would swell to over 250,000 by tip-off, Dec. 22. The NBA didn’t wait for the second wave to crest, it got right on and rode the swell. Opting to start the season at an ill-planned sprint rather than delay to a further date that likely would have made it impossible, in terms of positive optics, to even responsibly suggest the same.

“The idea of an event or a set of events, like the basketball season, going back to normal at a time at which people are still dying in fairly large numbers, seems a little bit tone deaf, to say the least,” Chris MacDonald, ethics professor at the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University and Senior Fellow at Duke University’s Kenan Institute for Ethics, says.

Sprints aren’t sustainable, and it turns out neither was operating as-is during the height of a pandemic’s second wave. One day after the season start, the NBA had its first postponement due to COVID-19. Three players on the Rockets returned positive or inconclusive tests while an additional four players had to quarantine due to contact tracing. In January and February, 21 and nine, respectively, games were postponed due to the league’s health and safety protocols, with COVID-19 creeping into injury reports daily in what felt like a bizarre and altogether grim exercise of normalization through continuation at all costs.

Which is why, as much as the NBA has tried to hang on some unraveling thread of stoicism at withstanding a tumult of wholly external forces, it had never been an outside, creeping nefariousness affecting the league, this was always a rupture from within. When the reality of the wider world broke through the league’s veneer of diversion, we were made aware of how uncomfortable and unnecessary it all was.

“I think sports leagues, and I’m frankly only starting to understand this, sports leagues are really odd kinds of entities,” MacDonald admits when asked about the public persona of a brand like the NBA, built around a progressive set of moral characteristics.

The NBA has long relied on a sense of corporate personhood, an identity that tries to balance business interests with a progressive persona. At best it can be an awkward if affable dance, at worst a stark and unsettling reminder that like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, the pointed teeth still work to rend when they need to. When pressed, as we’ve seen in the past, the straightforward if cold calculations of the league’s business interests tend to win out. With revenue losses looming for its billionaire owners, and broadcast partners and sponsors to appease, the NBA expedited the product. The result was a pre-Christmas start date, an overpacked and hastily planned All-Star Game, and a condensed 72-game season to appease corporate obligations while ending early enough as to not compete with viewership for the Olympics.

“These contracts are long-term and they’re very, very big,” Kemper says on the pressure felt from the league’s broadcast partners. “And so it’s not just the NBA owners or the league. It’s also the broadcasters that are part of the moral matrix here.”

There was a sense that once the whole, strange machine was put in motion there would be no stopping it. Watching the lurching mechanics as teams with outbreaks that overtook half their rosters attempted to cobble together lineups made it clear that it wasn’t just that the machine couldn’t stop, but that it was never designed with brakes. The league had told teams to push through even in times where the better answer was to pull back, and with make-up games and postseason pressure ramping up, the downhill slope is even steeper.

“There’s an old quote that said in an avalanche, no snowflake feels responsible,” MacDonald says. “All of our decisions go into this net pattern, but when it’s a corporate entity none of us may feel responsible. Or we may be able to rationalize, ‘Look, I’m not the one telling that player to go out onto the court before they’re ready. I’m just the finance guy who said if we don’t get games rolling by this date, we’re not going to make our financial targets.’”

Whether writ large in an exhaustive schedule riddled with back-to-backs (the second half of this season has some teams playing as many as 11), shifting health and safety measures, emotional and physical burnout, the long-term effects of the league’s insistence in pressing on can be measured on the bodies of its players, too. Jayson Tatum, who tested positive for coronavirus in January, has said he’s felt lingering longterm effects of the virus “from time to time.”

“It messes with your breathing a bit,” Tatum said. “I have experienced some games where, I don’t want to say struggling to breathe but, you get fatigued a lot quicker than normal.”

Mo Bamba, who tested positive in June, played a total of ten minutes in the entire duration of the Bubble. This season, and six months post-diagnosis, Bamba’s only played 16 games for the Magic, spending most of his time out of rotation.

“There’s no real timetable for him to be able to come back and fully participate,” Magic head coach Steve Clifford said. “I think that he’ll be able to do some things that are more organizational and everything. But he’s a ways away, and there’s no timetable on his return.”

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For a virus so new in our understanding of its impact on the general population, there’s less data to show the specific longterm effects COVID-19 could have on elite athletes. Among all athlete groups, basketball players face the highest incidence of sports-related sudden cardiac death in the U.S., and while early studies have shown no increase of lingering heart issues in players who previously tested positive for coronavirus, the reality is that it is too soon to have a full or clear understanding of what the longterm physical effects on players could be. This reason alone seems enough to be cautionary, to not leverage the sustainability of a single season against a player’s future career and personal livelihood.

“The thing that makes it additionally unclear, is that these players, mostly we’re talking about young men, I think the common perception is they’re out there risking their health all the time anyway,” MacDonald says. “They’re running down a court to put a ball in the net, and some other guys nearly seven feet tall, 240 pounds, is trying to stop them. That’s dangerous.”

It comes down to that “ball is life” mentality, especially when there’s livelihood involved.

“From an ethics point of view,” MacDonald explains. “it’s what we call an autonomous or a free choice to engage in a risky behavior, because you love the game, and because you’re going to make money. Of course we know there’s all kinds of other things, pressure from coaches, pressure from family,” he adds, “the pressure of knowing that once you retire, who the hell knows what you’re going to do in life. From one perspective, COVID is just another risk, but it’s unlike tearing your ACL, a torn ACL isn’t something you can give your partner.”

The league’s haste to put together this season has also been evident in confusion about protocols. By not providing teams with specific personnel to enact and enforce protocols, but instead mandating teams designate “protocol compliance officers” out of their existing staff pool, the constantly shifting rules fall to already exhausted athletic trainers to make sense of. In this way, sickness and strife become contractual obligations for someone else to uphold, and the somewhat foreseeable pitfalls in that plan of stretching existing staff thin is laid publicly and painfully bare.

When Kevin Durant, initially held out of a Feb. 5 game against Toronto when a test result for a Nets staffer he’d been with earlier that day came back inconclusive, was cleared to play only to be pulled in the third quarter when the test was then deemed positive, the issues the league has had in consistent contract tracing practices appeared to trip itself up out in the open enough that real questions around the dangers of pretending could be leveled. Instead, Nick Nurse and Steve Nash, head coaches on court that night, lamented at the disruption to gameplay.

When Karl Anthony-Towns, who has lost seven members of his family to COVID-19 since his mother died from complications from the virus in April, shared in early January he’d tested positive, the league announced new in-game protocols for players, including “cool down chairs” and calling on team security staff to limit postgame contact between teams to quick fist-bumps instead of hugs and conversations. The timing of Towns testing positive and new ambiguous in-game half-measures were unrelated — it was the increase in postponed games that pushed the NBA into the strange, winking concessions, and that’s the problem. It seems a convenient ruthlessness that methods meant to streamline play, to remove entirely the small comforts of contact that were left as buffers between games, be facilitated in a time where the toll of a virus the league has worked so diligently to evade its season succumbing to has diminished so entirely one of its brightest stars.

“One of the things that people worry about in large organizations is what we would call the diffusion of responsibility,” MacDonald explains. “So if you say, well, the league did it. What are you going to do? Word came down from the league. I don’t have quotes but I can imagine a coach saying look, the league just decided. Well, in that sense, it may well be true that the league decided, but it also means that a bunch of people got together and made a decision, and those people need to be accountable for their decisions.”

The onus being on someone else was also evident in the way the league approached fans in stadiums. Silver said the NBA had been studying the practices of other pro leagues to inform its decisions upon return, but the glaring omission was that the NFL, MLB, MLS, most of these game are played outdoors, in open-air arenas. In the markets where state laws would allow fans in attendance, they were to be 30ft back from the court, leaving a clear delineation between active players and fans. The distance was for players, not the safety of fans.

“They’re saying that you can go into the game and you don’t need a test unless you are within 30 feet of the court, which seems to me to be related to how close you are to the players and the safety of the players,” Dr. Abraar Karan, an internal medicine doctor at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School said in a Nov. 2020 interview with Slate.

Considering the care the NBA took in supporting hard-hit communities last spring, there is little consideration now for the league’s role in the broader communities in markets supporting its teams. It’s why All-Star, denounced by the Mayor of Atlanta, optically seemed like nothing but a convenient cash grab to appease a large stake of the NBA’s broadcasting commitments. The monetary support of HBCUs won by players throughout the night, while undeniably impactful, used as a kind of too-late leverage considering the city never wanted it and will deal with whatever deeper, public health fallout settles past the event’s whirlwind 24 hours.

“I think they’re not different from almost any other corporation in that, you can be moral as long as the revenues keep coming in,” Kemper says. “It’s not a shocker that this has happened to the NBA. They are not structured in a way to act in the best interest of their cities.”

This season, the NBA has taken full advantage of the broad interpretations of coronavirus protocol within the states of its team markets, as well as the murky middle-ground between what is socially permissive and not in order to slip from the fixed constraints of integrity.

“The NBA, with the exception of the Raptors, is an American operation,” Kemper says from her home in Toronto. “And although our public health institutions here are weakened over time, theirs have been decimated. And so there’s no easy way for local authorities to say, this is too dangerous. There’s no center of gravity for public health in almost any part of the U.S.”

Even as the careworn mantle of practiced corporate personhood slips from the league’s shoulders and shows it testing what boundaries it can push, an exhausted, pandemic weary public can’t bring itself to care.

“Corporations want to push the risk outside the company and bring the games, the profits, inside the company,” Kemper says. “So by creating a season that puts cities at risk, that put players at risk, that put future seasons at risk because of the health of the players, they did what companies normally do, which is exogenize risk and bring all the gains on board.”

Silver has drawn wobbly parallels to what the league is doing, in its insistence on sustaining itself, its season, as something directly beneficial to the broader economy. And it’s true, there are thousands of people, beyond players, whose livelihoods are directly tied to the league, but the league and its owners are also economically insulated enough to withstand far more than the general population Silver was speaking about.

It should not be such an aspirational ask to want the NBA to operate within the same moral and ethical bounds it assigns itself as an entity of importance and leverage. So much of what the league is attempting to do in playing through is to prove this season isn’t an exception and doesn’t require better, more exceptional ways of operating. In straining to maintain the bare minimum the NBA, so often a progressive force, has not just fallen several staggering steps behind but come close to regression, at odds with a world longing to move forward.