Competing with COVID-19

By: Sophia Pilot

December 14, 2020

Athletes must think on their feet and adapt to the challenges present in their games. 2020 proved to be the obstacle that athletes had to overcome. In March, sporting events worldwide were postponed or canceled in response to the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) advice to take precautionary measures against COVID-19. 

The National Basketball Association (NBA) was the first league to report a positive COVID-19 test. Moments before the tip-off between the Utah Jazz and the Oklahoma City Thunder game on March 11, 2020, players were sent to the locker room after the two head coaches, Billy Donovan and Quin Snyder, and the officials met on court. Fans awaited an explanation and later found out the game was postponed due to a medical emergency. Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert received positive test results moments before the tip-off. Although he was not at the game, the league knew others were exposed. In addition to Gobert’s teammate, Donovan Mitchell, a handful of other athletes and staff contracted the virus. 

In response to the outbreak, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver postponed the season for 30 days. Basketball games are played in large facilities with thousands of people attending; thus, the potential for spreading the virus is enormous. The players recognized that many people rely on NBA games for their salary. In an effort to help those financially affected by the cancelations, many players including, Zion Williams of the New Orleans Pelicans, Kevin Love of the Cleveland Cavaliers, Giannis Antentekumpo of the Milwaukee Bucks, and Blake Griffin of the Detroit Pistons stepped up by paying NBA arena workers who lost their jobs. 

After Commissioner Silver’s announcement, other leagues postponed their seasons, as health became the first priority. Most professional leagues were canceled including: Major League Baseball (MLB), National Hockey League (NHL), Major League Soccer (MLS), and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), while other major sporting events waited to decide as they continued to monitor the spread of the virus. The 2020 Tokyo Olympics were postponed after the President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Thomas Bach, and the Prime Minister of Japan, Abe Shinzo, determined that holding the games was not safe. 

Despite the uncertainty of when it would happen, players were anxiously awaiting the return of their seasons. Players brought forth ideas of a March Madness-style tournament as opposed to a multiple game series. There were concerns that if the NBA returned too late that would impact the playoffs and the start of the 2020-2021 Season. 

The idea of having a bubble where the NBA players were isolated for the remainder of its season at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports facilities in Disney World allowed teams to safely finish the end of the regular season and the postseason. This location was equipped with three basketball courts and a village area in Coronado Springs which housed the athletes and isolated them from the rest of the park. Players were instructed to participate in a training camp following a two-week self-isolation period. After the success of the NBA bubble, the MLB decided to create a bubble for their postseason games. The MLB agreed on neutral locations to house its 2020 postseason games: Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas, and Petco Park in San Diego, California. The NHL also copied the MLB’s idea of playing in limited cities (Toronto, Ontario, and Edmonton, Alberta). 

The NBA and NHL bubbles were executed safely as they did not have any positive COVID-19 test results. However, MLB’s bubble ended its 54-day COVID-19 free streak with the positive test result of Justin Turner, of the Los Angeles Dodgers during game seven of the World Series against the Tampa Bay Rays. Contrary to the CDC’s recommendation of sporting events being played in an isolated bubble, the NFL, MLS, and NCAA were heavily impacted by the spread of COVID-19. 

The NFL had strict protocols of mask-wearing, testing, and limiting gatherings and holding meetings virtually. But, the spread of COVID-19 was inevitable with the amount of personnel and the extensive travel needed to play the games. Similar to the NFL, the NCAA had to cancel several of its games due to players contracting the virus. 

During the height of the pandemic, the murder of George Floyd on March 25, 2020, caused many athletes from different sports to speak out against racial injustice. In the NBA bubble, players were seen with phrases on their jerseys in support of the Black Lives Matter Movement. Professional Tennis player, Naomi Osaka was seen wearing seven different masks with the names of seven different victims of racial injustice and police brutality during the 2020 U.S. Open. As a victim of racism, Osaka used her platform to get people to talk about racial injustice. Her efforts also caused The Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) to take a stand against racial justice. Osaka was playing not only to win the U.S Open but more importantly, to spread awareness about issues in our society. 

Athletes are hoping that next season, they will be able to continue to use their voice on the court and on the field to spread awareness of racial injustice. The Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), NBA, and the NFL held virtual drafts amidst the pandemic. The NBA plans to start their season on December 22, 2020, which has been reduced to 72 games without a bubble. The MLB plans to begin spring training on February 27, 2021, and begin the regular season on April 1, 2021. 

Each league handled the challenges of this past year in different ways. Some more successful than others. But as we know in sports, you train so you can quickly adjust and succeed.  Hopefully, this coming year will see many successes for these leagues.

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