NBA thrives in ‘bubble’ as COVID-19 strikes MLB

Six MLB teams had games postponed Friday because of novel coronavirus outbreaks or exposure to other teams who had them. There could be more postponements by the time you read this. Debates about whether this 60-game MLB season is legitimate have been supplanted by speculation on whether it will even finish.

Meanwhile, the NBA’s biggest COVID-19 story: Lou Williams stopping at Magic City during an excused absence from the Clippers. The debate was whether Williams was at the Atlanta institution for the chicken wings or the adult entertainment. That side trip prompted the NBA to order a 10-day quarantine for Williams, the 2005 Mr. Georgia Basketball at South Gwinnett High, before he could rejoin his team.

Baseball decided to play its season with teams outside of a so-called bubble. That plan started leaking oil before opening day. The NBA, WNBA NHL, MLS and NWSL all had or will have bubbles of some kind. The soccer tournaments had some initial outbreaks but, otherwise, the bubble leagues have played on without much issue.

MLB had to see this coming. European soccer and Korean baseball were successfully operating without bubbles before baseball started back up. But experts have said all along that the feasibility of sports during the pandemic depends on the context of where they are played. MLB couldn’t have believed that the federal government or ideologically aligned state and local politicians would have a competent, serious response to COVID-19 by July.

It was predictable that ineffective, irresponsible leadership would lead to rising cases of COVID-19. According to the New York Times tracker, which compiles data from state and local governments and health departments, as of Friday new cases per capita of the virus were increasing in 26 states and the District of Columbia over the previous 14 days. Another 20 states had about the same number of new cases per capita.

MLB teams are operating in six areas where new COVID-19 cases were rising. They are playing in eight states where new cases weren’t decreasing. Or, in the case of the Marlins, not playing. A virus outbreak on that team infected 18 players starting last weekend. MLB paused Miami’s schedule for at least a week, and a chain reaction of other postponements followed.

MLB and players spent weeks negotiating the financial terms for playing a season. They didn’t put nearly as much effort into figuring out how to handle an outbreak. There was no plan for that in the protocols. After the Marlins outbreak, ESPN reported that MLB told teams they must travel with a compliance officer who ensures protocols are followed. Why didn’t that happen in the first place?

It took nearly half of Miami’s traveling party to test positive for MLB to finally postpone games. Before that, commissioner Rob Manfred was pretending the league’s protocols were fine. MLB adopted seven-inning doubleheaders to get in as many games as possible. Baseball didn’t have much choice under the circumstances, but add that to the pile of gimmicks for this season.

MLB could have created its own bubble for this season. It would have been more challenging than basketball. There are about 900 players on active rosters compared with the roughly 340 NBA players at Disney World. But MLS created a Disney bubble with more than 700 players.

MLB players apparently didn’t have much appetite to be sequestered in one place for weeks to play the season. I can’t blame them for that. I also don’t fault players who opted not to play outside of a bubble. Baseball decided to take the risk of playing in home cities with COVID-19 spreading, and we are seeing the results.

Baseball’s plight doesn’t bode well for college football. Maybe COVID-19 will be more under control in some areas by September. If so, would it really stay that way once college students return campus? One clue: Multiple college football teams had outbreaks during summer workouts.

As always when it comes to the welfare of its unpaid athletes, the NCAA announced recommendations instead of requirements for COVID-19 protocols. The ACC announced that members of football teams will test once a week at least 72 hours before competition. The effectiveness of COVID-19 plans, especially those without a bubble, depend on how athletes behave away from work. We already know college football players will behave like college students during those 72 hours.

NFL teams won’t be in a bubble and, like MLB, eventually plan to test participants every other day. But the NFL and its players agreed to allow team discipline for behaviors considered high-risk. That should help. The NBA strengthened its bubble by creating a hotline for anonymous reporting of protocol violations. That has helped.

ESPN reported that the memo MLB sent to teams announcing the addition of compliance officers also told them to encourage team personnel to quarantine in hotels while on the road. There is no mandate, though. And players can do as they please while at home. Sounds like self-policing and a prayer.

Among team sports leagues, the NHL may have the best shot of finishing its season. The league reported no positive tests for its 800-plus players during training camps. The NHL’s 24 playoff teams begin play this weekend inside bubbles in “hub” cities of Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta. Canada has done a much better job than the U.S. of controlling the spread, which is why its government wisely prohibited MLB teams from playing there.

The NBA eliminated a lot of potential issues by creating its bubble. The league also designed an attractive showcase for its product. There is no way to televise a baseball game without the sadness of empty seats as backdrop. The NBA’s arena setups make for great TV.

The league even figured out a way to get real fans involved. Select supporters are shown on video boards surrounding courts. Audio of their cheers are piped into the broadcast to provide atmosphere. It’s a great idea, even if the images of fans sometimes look weird.

Ethically, I also feel better watching the bubble leagues. The bubble means there’s less chance that participants are infected by COVID-19. There’s less risk of community spread. I felt even better about the NBA when it announced that it is extending a program that provides free tests in Orlando and other team markets.

There’s no guarantee that the bubble leagues make it to the end of their seasons without major problems caused by COVID-19. I’d bet on that happening before I’d back baseball or football. Nationals pitcher Sean Doolittle was right when he called sports “the reward of a functioning society” during the pandemic. In the U.S., they also are the prize for leagues that come up with realistic and effective plans to keep participants safe.

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