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Short-term exposure and long-term risks mean the NBA needs to take a more responsible approach to COVID-19

The NBA season began 23 days ago, amidst a massive surge of COVID-19 cases. Now, three Wizards are infected.
Wade Fagen-Ulmschneider

The COVID-19 pandemic has unsurprisingly turned the season into a mess and the ramifications could be far more significant than postponed or cancelled games. Having a safe season was always going to be a challenge, but the colossal surge in cases in the weeks leading up to the start of the NBA season should have spurred the league’s leadership to reconsider their protocols and plans.

While the league has recently strengthened those protocols, three Wizards have now tested positive for the virus, and others may follow. At a minimum, each of those three will miss the next 10 days. And, each is at risk for much longer term effects.

One aspect of the pandemic that hasn’t gotten enough attention is the long-term health risk to people who test positive for the virus and are deemed “asymptomatic.” It’s important to recognize that “asymptomatic” means not exhibiting things like fever, cough, bumps on the skin, diarrhea, or the loss of smell or taste. It does not include other health effects, likely because COVID-19 was initially assumed to be a flu-like infection, and not the vascular disease it may be.

Researchers are finding that the so-called asymptomatic show inflammation (damage) to their hearts and lungs. They don’t know yet whether the inflammation will persist and form scar tissue or go away over time. Experts are sanguine about its effects on “young people” because there’s enough lung reserve to function normally.

It’s an open question whether that same thinking applies to elite athletes, though. It could be that the relative youth and extreme fitness of NBA players and other athletes give them an advantage in resisting short- and long-term COVID-19 effects. It could also be that a small degradation in heart and lung capacity may be enough to lower a player’s performance in a significant way.

I do not envy the NBA’s attempt to navigate competing priorities. Another bubble was untenable because it was brutally expensive and the players despised it. Canceling or delaying the season would have cost billions.

It’s understandable that league and players agreed to accept the risks, as they understood them at the time, and move forward with the season. The initial protocols — travel between cities, lists of approved restaurants, permitting guests in hotel rooms — exacerbated those risks.

While I don’t think cancelling or suspending the season is warranted at this point, it’s fair to say the season is teetering and the league’s options are dwindling. The only way they’re going to salvage the season is if teams and players commit to creating a moving bubble where players and other personnel remain as isolated as possible from the outside world.

It’s a far from ideal existence, but it’s time for the NBA to decide what’s important. If it’s making millions of dollars to have a season, they need to act like it.