NBA vs. NFL Response to COVID


Stephanie Wang, Staff Writer

Ever since the coronavirus started becoming a big deal in the U.S. earlier this year, one of the businesses that has been hit the hardest has been the sports business. Deprived of fan revenue, faced with empty stands, and desperate to somehow devise a system to keep all players and staff safe, sports leagues and associations have been scrambling to find solutions to keep their seasons underway. One league that has managed to successfully pull this feat off is the National Basketball Association (NBA), which was able to close off its season after going months without a single case of COVID-19 inside its “bubble”, an isolated, coronavirus-free space. On the other hand, other leagues like the National Football League (NFL) continue to struggle with controlling the virus’s spread.

In order to continue its 2019-2020 season, the NBA opted for an isolation-style approach, setting up a “bubble” for every game on the NBA schedule through early October at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida. The idea behind it was that, assuming that no one was infected to begin with, if all the players, coaches, and team personnel were gathered in one area with little to no contact with the outside world, the risk of anyone in the bubble contracting the virus would be extremely low, and would allow the games to be played normally. The teams in the NBA bubble included the 16 teams in the playoffs when the season was first suspended in March, along with six other teams that were six games or less behind the eighth seed in each of their conferences, for 22 total teams.

Upon arriving, everyone who first entered the bubble on July 7 was required to self-isolate until they received two negative COVID-19 tests, some up to 48 hours. As players and team personnel in the bubble continued to be tested regularly, those who tested positive for the coronavirus underwent a 14-day period of isolation and treatment, and players would be subject to a cardiac screening two weeks after symptoms cleared (or after the first positive test, for asymptomatic cases). Guest visits were very limited, and anyone who entered the bubble needed to self-isolate and test negative for COVID-19 before being allowed to move freely within the campus. Additionally, to further ensure the safety of everyone in the bubble, the league also installed a so-called “snitch hotline” for anonymous tips about rule violations.  

Despite the price paid by both players and commissioners alike—the bubble reportedly cost more than $150 million to maintain—the NBA’s strategy showed remarkable results. Although a few players committed violations throughout the season—Lou Williams of the Clippers visited a popular Atlanta strip club, reportedly to collect some lemon-pepper chicken wings; Kings player Richaun Holmes was also caught collecting chicken wings from a delivery service outside Disney World bounds, and Bruno Cabclo of the Rockers was forced to endure a 10-day quarantine and invasive nose swab testing after breaking his initial 48-quarantine period—no new positive cases were recorded after July 13, and the league was able to work through its full schedule and crown a 2019-2020 NBA champion with few problems. Other leagues and associations, including the Women’s National Basketball Association, National Hockey League, and National Women’s Soccer League, have also successfully adopted this bubble strategy.

Meanwhile, the NFL has continued with a more traditional approach without some of the harsher measures enforced in the NBA bubble, using contact tracing and isolation for infected individuals and requesting that players refrain from engaging in high-risk activities to counter the coronavirus. 

“We do not feel it’s practical or appropriate to construct a bubble,” NFL Chief Medical Officer Dr. Allen Sills told NFL Network. “Anyone who tests positive will be isolated until medically appropriate to return.” 

While the standard protocols the NFL have been using to identify cases and limit spread certainly are reliable and functional to some extent, it’s still nearly impossible—more so than the NBA, at least—to completely cover all bases, especially when this strategy rides on the cooperation of players and team personnel to follow the guidelines. Although the NFL season seemed to be off to a good start with low positive rates being reported throughout the training camp (a period of time for teams to reconvene and practice before the start of the season) and the first few weeks, disaster struck soon after. 

An outbreak caused multiple players on the Steelers, Titans (a whopping 13 people associated with the Titans tested positive following their Week 3 game against the Vikings), Patriots, and Chiefs to test positive for the coronavirus, forcing the league to cancel their games and isolate everyone infected. While it wasn’t necessarily a person’s fault that they got infected with the virus—some people simply get unlucky—several accounts of negligence and rule violations have been recorded throughout the NFL season.

Multiple members of the Raiders organization, including Derek Carr, Jason Witten, and Darren Waller, for example, have been fined after a video of several Raiders players—maskless—at an indoor charity event resurfaced. Raiders Coach Jon Gruden, along with four other coaches and teams, have also been fined for insufficient use of face covering (which the league requires) on the sideline of a game. Needless to say, the NFL has not been doing nearly as well as the NBA did to ensure the safety and health of its teams due to its relatively lax guidelines and lack of discipline among some of its players.

The 2020 NBA season certainly ended on a high note, giving the NFL much to think about in its ongoing struggle against the coronavirus. One thing, of course, would be to seriously contemplate the idea of a bubble. While the NFL’s chief medical officer has already shot that idea down, it may soon become the league’s last hope for a full season, especially considering the lack of discipline among some of its players and teams, which provides even more food for thought. Any type of strategy that is being used in the fight against coronavirus hinges on the compliance of everyone involved, so enacting stricter enforcement of the safety guidelines and demanding everyone’s cooperation would be crucial, even without the bubble system.

“This virus is a relentless opponent, it needs only a small crack. And even 90 or 95% compliance with our protocols is not enough,” Sills said. “That’s not a passing grade, because it still leaves a bit vulnerable.”

As the country continues to reopen under a new normal, sports leagues will also need to do their part by constantly reassessing the threat posed by the pandemic and adjusting their responses to it to ensure the safety of players, team personnel, and fans. While the NBA and other professional sports leagues have proved that this is possible, the sports industry as a whole still has a long way to go.


Graphic courtesy of AXIOS.COM