NBA was a leader for all of sports and society in tumultuous 2020

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver started hearing about COVID-19 in January when he received reports from staff at NBA China headquarters.

By February, he knew enough to mention it unprompted at his annual All-Star news conference. Behind the scenes, Silver had drafted a team to learn as much about the novel coronavirus as possible.

By early March, COVID-19 was in Silver’s backyard with an outbreak in suburban New Rochelle, New York. As government officials downplayed the virus, Silver knew how serious it was. When Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive on March 11, Silver understood he needed to suspend league operations. That set off a chain reaction that altered the sports calendar, conveying just how deadly the virus can be.

Commissioner Adam Silver led the NBA's return to play in a bubble in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. (Photo: Mark J. Terrill, AP)

“The safety, health and well-being of our players, coaches, fans, everyone involved in our game, is paramount,” Silver said on April 17.

From the start of COVID-19’s arrival, Silver and the NBA trusted science, medicine and data and listened to infectious disease, mental and public health experts, virologists, epidemiologists, microbiologists and researchers.

“The NBA from the beginning was a leader in response to COVID,” said Yonatan Grad, a Harvard assistant professor of immunology and infectious diseases. “As soon as they had their first case, they shut down the league the same day. And I think the first really big cultural institution to do so. … They are bold and attend to and respond to public health issues even from the beginning. It’s in keeping with their values and their thinking.

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“The other part of it is that the response that they established was one that was totally based on science and informed by science. So they wanted to keep track of what was actually happening in real time and continue to update their protocols and their activities based on what they were seeing.”

The league demonstrated that it was not only possible to play in a bubble safely, but that some of its health and safety protocols could be used to help keep the general population safe.

The NBA’s drafted its initial 113-page health and safety protocol document through consultation with experts, including Dr. David Ho, the acclaimed HIV researcher who worked with Magic Johnson, and Dr. Vivek Murthy, the former U.S. surgeon general, and Dr. Anthony Fauci. The league’s COVID team maintained regular communication with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“I haven’t seen anything that’s this comprehensive from anyone. Not just the federal government, I haven’t seen state governments put anything out this comprehensive and haven’t seen any industries that’s put out something this comprehensive,” Dr. Rishi Desai, the chief medical officer at Osmosis and an infection disease physician, told USA TODAY Sports of the league’s bubble protocols.

The league also revealed the value of collaboration. It worked with Yale to expedite the development of an affordable COVID-19 saliva test, partnered with the Mayo Clinic for a coronavirus antibodies study and helped Harvard study full viral trajectories and how the virus can be treated.

The NBA contributed to the public good.

“The lengths to which they’ve gone to try to contribute to our broader understanding of COVID-19 and to accelerate the development of new technologies has been remarkable and laudatory,” Grad said. “It’s pretty incredible, the enthusiasm and eagerness with which they want to translate what they have learned to clinical and public health information and practice.”

Though the NBA kept an undefeated record against COVID-19 on its quarantined campus, the pandemic still delivered punches the league anticipated. The reason? The fight against the virus goes beyond preventing deaths and infection rates. It also entails navigating mental health issues.

The NBA may have been removed from the virus’ danger in its bubble at Disney World in Florida. The NBA’s multi-millionaire players and coaches may have kept them protected from the nation’s unemployment rate. But they still remained vulnerable from staying isolated on a campus.

They stayed there for an extended period of time away from family. They had little free time to recover their bodies or enjoy any leisurely activities to unwind in between practices and games. And the NBA’s predominantly Black players were deeply affected by the racial strife involving police brutality on unarmed Black people, including George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Jacob Blake.

"It’s like a trigger. I couldn’t imagine having to go out and perform and being away from your family in a bubble and going through those different traumas," Keyon Dooling, the former NBA players union’s wellness counselor, told USA TODAY Sports in August. "It’s a lot to navigate. I think our guys have done a fantastic job with focusing on basketball, while giving enough focus to the realities that we experience on a daily basis. So I’m extremely proud of our guys for just being so resilient, vulnerable and tough with trying to make change in a positive way."

Numerous players spoke about their daily struggles with living in the bubble. While they expressed gratitude for their privileged position, players urged the general public to seek help from friends, family and professional social workers about any mental health struggles.

The league required that team clinicians remain available for players on staff and campus, whether it entailed in-person or telehealth access.

"This was happening quite frankly before Orlando and even before the season hiatus in March," Jamila Wideman, the NBA’s vice president of player development, told USA TODAY Sports in August. "The strength we had tried to create in the bubble is only possible because teams, players, coaches and team staff had already embraced resources on the team level and league level. That created a foundation in which we could work.”

And work the NBA did, setting an example in 2020 for other leagues and businesses around the country.

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