The Game Cannot Go On

Events without live spectators don’t change the basic problem: Athletes are vulnerable to the coronavirus too.

Fans leaving a canceled Utah Jazz-Oklahoma City Thunder game.
USA Today Sports / Reuters

The NBA’s sudden decision to suspend its season until further notice last night after Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for the coronavirus was a terrific first step toward acknowledging the inevitable.

Next, the league should just officially cancel the rest of the season. In light of the massive revenue that professional sports makes from TV contracts, the temptation is probably strong to think that the season can be salvaged and that everything will quickly go back to normal. The ripple effects from Gobert’s positive test showed exactly why that is impossible. Early Thursday, ESPN reported that Gobert’s teammate Donovan Mitchell also tested positive for the coronavirus. The NBA now has two confirmed cases of the virus within 24 hours of the World Health Organization declaring that COVID-19 is a pandemic.

Right before the Jazz were supposed to tip off against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Wednesday night, a medical official informed the referees that Gobert—who had mocked the seriousness of the coronavirus with reporters two days before by touching all of their microphones—had been infected. Within minutes, the game was canceled. In that moment, one can only imagine the anxiety felt by Gobert’s teammates and even the reporters who covered the game—all of whom were quarantined inside the arena for several hours as Oklahoma health officials tested them for COVID-19, the disease caused by this novel coronavirus. Meanwhile, other team personnel were tested at the team’s hotel in Oklahoma City.

It was only a matter of time before this epidemic directly affected the NBA. Playing without fans present—the policy that the NBA was poised to begin before Gobert’s positive test—was, in hindsight, an overly optimistic solution. It would have helped reduce the risk, but it wouldn’t have eliminated it. Games can go on only as long as the players in them are healthy, and the rosy scenario in which games would be played in empty arenas didn’t account for the probability that one or more players would come down with the fast-spreading coronavirus. Players, coaches, and other team personnel still have lives to live outside of their jobs. And with the NBA’s hectic travel schedule, these individuals may well have been at an elevated risk of being exposed—and of exposing others to the disease.

Tracing all the possibilities  of who could potentially have been exposed because of Gobert crystallizes how frightening the COVID-19 pandemic is. In the past two weeks, the Jazz have played six teams in five different cities. The reason the New Orleans Pelicans–Sacramento Kings game also was canceled last night is because one of the referees set to officiate the game had officiated a Utah Jazz game last week. (Games already in progress when the suspension was announced last night were allowed to continue.)

Think about all the people Gobert was in contact with—his friends, family, teammates, players on other teams, and other Jazz employees. ESPN reported that the teams the Jazz have played recently have been asked to quarantine themselves. Gobert and the rest of the Jazz entourage stayed in an Oklahoma City hotel the night before the game. What about all the people there who could have been exposed? Statistics suggest that Gobert, who is young and in excellent physical shape, is likely to recover. But whether his contracting the coronavirus led others to be exposed remains unclear, and for most of the general public in the United States, tests have been difficult to come by.

Once this disease was classified as a global pandemic and health experts began to advise against any large gatherings, the NBA should have just canceled the rest of the season right then. Whether it realized it or not, the league was speeding toward this decision. This just makes the NCAA’s decision to go on with March Madness look incredibly selfish and thoughtless. The NCAA has been trying to do what the NBA did by coming up with a solution that allows it to minimize risk, but also stay devoted to the piles of television money the NCAA rakes in from its postseason tournament. Holding the tournament would be bad optics for the NCAA, which just looks like it’s compromising player safety for greed.

Shutting down the NBA for the rest of the season will cost the league millions. But containment is no longer a viable option. The NBA has to do everything possible to survive this crisis.