Amid rising cases, Raptors playing at home sent wrong message at wrong time

Eric Smith and Michael Grange discuss the news that the Raptors will open the season in Tampa, Florida and break down the implications it may have on the organization's ability to sign free agents.

The problem with symbols is they can be interpreted both ways.

When Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri reached out to the team's fans directly last week, through select interviews, a carefully worded statement and an op-ed piece, he wasn’t so much trying to put pressure on the Canadian government -- who had the fate of his team in its hands -- as he was trying shed light on the potential benefits of having the Raptors play at home this rapidly approaching NBA season.

“Going into the winter months, approaching our second calendar year with COVID, I think sports has a role to play in our collective recovery,” he wrote in an op-ed piece in the Toronto Star.

“I think we can bring people together, even when we are apart. I think we can inspire. I think we can set an example. I know we will share what we will learn playing this season under safety protocols, and maybe that experience makes it a little bit easier for all of us to get back to the lives we left behind in March 2020.”

By all accounts, the federal government and specifically Health Canada were open to finding a way to accommodate the Raptors -- who submitted a plan both for their own protocols as they sought to be exempt from quarantine rules in hopes of travelling to games back-and-forth across the U.S. border, and on behalf on the 29 other NBA teams they would be hosting in Toronto over the course of the season.

The Raptors had consulted both with the Toronto Blue Jays -- who had applied for a similar exemption this past summer and were permitted to train in Toronto only to eventually be sent packing to Buffalo -- and with the NHL, which was successful in establishing "quarantine bubbles" in Toronto and Edmonton to play out the 2019-20 regular season and playoffs.

In each case, there were no positive tests for COVID-19 and the cost of the testing was covered by the teams and the leagues.

Rather than be a source of community spread, the pro sports teams were proof that with diligent testing, tracing and other protocols, the virus could be kept at bay.

Encouraging, right?

But in the end, with the Raptors desperate for an answer so they could properly plan for the opening of training camp on Dec. 1 and the regular season on Dec. 22, the government said they couldn’t offer Toronto and the NBA the exemptions they needed to play at home.

“The Raptors worked diligently with public health officials at the local, provincial and federal level to secure a plan that would permit us to play our 2020-21 season on home soil and on our home court at Scotiabank Arena,” Ujiri said in a statement released Friday afternoon, just hours before the negotiating window for free agents opened at 6 p.m.

“These conversations were productive, and we found strong support for the protocols we put forward. Ultimately, the current public health situation facing Canadians, combined with the urgent need to determine where we will play means that we will begin our 2020-21 season in Tampa, Florida.”

Instead of being a symbol of renewal and a hint of normalcy, which was what they were pinning their hopes on, the Raptors likely ran into the reality that with case counts rising and governments at all levels being forced to ask people to co-operate with further restrictions, and quite likely for a lengthy period, this was not the time to be seen to allowing anyone to gain special privileges.

The irony being that perhaps no industry (outside of health care) has been more vigilant, compliant and, on the whole, successful in carrying on in the midst of the pandemic than sports and the NBA in particular.

The Raptors and Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment, in particular, have been leaders both in deed and in their messaging. Their platforms have effectively communicated the need to wear masks and respect social distancing, and during the first-wave lockdown were quick to pivot their facilities to be used for food preparation for frontline workers and food banks.

But there were no chips to be cashed in or favours granted.

This wasn’t politics, it was a matter of public health and – not that Raptors were pushing them to – there were no shortcuts to be taken or exceptions made.

On a rational level, the possibility of Jayson Tatum and the Boston Celtics – themselves subject to near-daily testing -- flying into Toronto on a private jet and then travelling by private bus to an otherwise largely empty downtown hotel for a night, before taking a bus to an empty Scotiabank Arena being the source of an outbreak of any sort is laughably remote.

Similarly, the Raptors – also subject to routine testing – somehow becoming super spreaders after playing a game under similar circumstances in Boston or anywhere else doesn’t really stand up to logic.

But this is an emotional time. Logic doesn’t necessarily matter.

Even the relationship between Ujiri and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was of no help, if anything it likely required the government to be even more careful, rather give the appearance that a matter of public health could somehow be influenced by friendship.

And so now, the Raptors have to shift their gaze south and undertake the massive logistical challenge of temporarily running an NBA team out of a new city in a different country – one where the pandemic is raging, seemingly out of control.

Nearly everything that gets taken for granted when the NBA circus is in town has to be recreated from scratch.

Initially, the Raptors will be holding training camp north of Tampa at Saint Leo University, a Division II school and afterwards will be using a downtown Tampa hotel ballroom outfitted as their practice facility, separate from the public.

Now begins the work of sourcing two NBA regulation floors, for example, and outfitting a world-class weight room and sports medicine clinic.

It’s estimated a party of nearly 60 staff, players and coaches will have to relocate on barely 10 days notice.

To avoid these hurdles, and for many other reasons, the Raptors were hoping that they could play at home and conduct business as some version of normal.

But even the appearance of allowing one business to operate outside the rules being imposed on everyone else was the wrong symbol at the wrong time.

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