The NBA – and all professional sports in North America – have a number of challenges ahead of them before they can realistically return to playing games for our amusement in the midst of a pandemic.
But one of them is image related – how to return to the business of basketball without appearing to put the league’s interests ahead of front line health-care workers or others at risk from COVID-19?
Could a path forward for the NBA be found by looking north at what the NHL might be considering as they look at returning to play in Toronto?
Both leagues have a similar challenge in common.
In order to ensure the safety of their workforces – everyone from the team masseuses to the multimillionaire athletes getting the rubdowns, along with the logistics and production staff required to put on a made-for-TV conclusion to this season – they need to be able to test for the COVID-19 virus in large numbers and often.
Any scenario out there – from the hub city model, where a cluster of teams gather in one place for a shorter period of time or the so-called “quarantine bubbles,” where the entire league (the NBA in this case) essentially centralizes at a venue like Disney World for weeks – requires extraordinary measures to make sure no one gets infected and no one that is infected is in the mix to infect others.
To do it right, the leagues will require lots of tests and with rapid response times. One report by ESPN said if the NBA were to take over Disney World, they would need about 15,000 tests handy and ready to go.
For an organization as wealthy and connected as the NBA, procuring the tests likely is not the issue. But being seen as jumping the line and taking tests out of circulation for the general population as the U.S. continues to struggle to meet its stated testing goals is a problem both morally and optically.
“We know we need large-scale testing (nationally),” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said on a recent conference call about some of the hurdles the league would have to cross before they could resume play. “As to the universal testing, there are different tests being proposed. They may have different uses in different situations. It goes without doubt that we have to ensure that front line health-care workers are taken care of before we begin talking about NBA players or sports.”
By that way of thinking, the NBA’s return is tied to a timeline dictated by the U.S. health-care system’s ability to test in large enough numbers that the league wouldn’t be putting an additional burden on it.
And that could take a while.
“We need to be producing tens of millions of tests in order to be able to get all the campuses open, 100,000 public schools open,” Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican who’s chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee told CNN on Thursday. “We’ve never tried to do that before in this country.”
The U.S. has conducted six million tests in total from January to the end of April, but the White House has said its goal was to conduct two million tests per week – with each state testing two per cent of their population — by the end of May.
In Ontario, testing has lagged behind stated goals also.
But when Ontario premier Doug Ford was asked Friday about how the testing of NHL players and related staff would be handled if Toronto became a hub for the six other Canadian teams should play resume, he had an answer ready:
“From what I understand all tests would be supplied by MLSE, the costs will be absorbed by (Leafs and Raptors owners) MLSE or the NHL, whoever it might be,” said Ford. “And through that, whenever they set it up then they’ll actually donate some of the time at the testing area as well, so they are giving back to the public on top of testing their own players, which I thought was very thoughtful of them, for doing that.”
Could the NBA follow a similar path, where instead of waiting for widespread testing to be available to the point where they wouldn’t be seen as a drain on resources, they could be the source of more testing?
It’s something that’s been contemplated in NBA circles, although no specifics are available. But it seems like something that could be easily viewed as a win-win, if say, for every 1000 tests the NBA uses they “sponsor” 20,000 tests in communities where there was a need.
In Germany where the Bundesliga is poised to become one of the first major sports leagues to return to play, the league has promised to cover the cost of the additional testing they’ll need – an estimated 20,000 tests spread among 36 teams – as well as provide any surplus tests to front line health-care workers.
“Along with the NBA, we are all following that and I think if they are a couple of weeks in front of us, it will be hopefully useful and directional for us to look at,” Raptors general manager Bobby Webster told reporters on a conference call when asked if the NBA is studying the German model. “Everyone is looking at that. Definitely the German league is starting up, or at least the training part, and looking at leagues that are currently playing without fans (Korea) just operationally, what does it look like. It’s not exactly the same situation as us, but I think we are learning and we will learn from both situations.”
The NBA hasn’t shown its hand with regard to its plans to return to competition, although Friday marked the first day teams could open their practice facilities to players under strict protocols – a maximum of four players in any building at once – to make sure to minimize any chance of transmission.
But if testing and optics are obstacles to returning to play, Ontario and the NHL may have provided a playbook the NBA should – and almost certainly is – looking at with interest.