Sports Leagues Should Bubble Up or Shut Down

Talking to you NBA, NFL, and NCAA

Under normal circumstances, this would be my favorite time of the sports calendar. College football is in its bowl season and the CFP is coming shortly. College basketball has started up and made it to league play. The NFL is about to start its own playoffs. The NBA has started its season with key Christmas matchups and has several compelling storylines. (I’m also told the NHL season is starting up though I don’t know much about it as I’m admittedly not a big hockey fan – don’t hold that against me hockey stans).

For obvious reasons, this is not a normal year. To make matters worse, most models predict the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths to increase over the next few months. This from an already astronomical case count occurring right now in the USA!

The Real Toll

Many athletes, coaches and staff have already contracted the virus even with all of the precautions that have been put in place. Fortunately, reactions and long-term effects have not been severe for most athletes as they are largely young and in good physical shape.

Abstractly, it may be easy to put this out of America’s collective conscience with just statistics and a lot of fake news stating that this virus is no big deal. Less so when we’re talking about real people, young men in the prime of their lives who have suffered grave effects.

Jamain Stephens Jr. (Cal U FB) and Michael Ojo (FSU MBB & Serbian Pro) sadly lost their lives due to complications from COVID. Xavier Thomas (Clemson FB) had a severe case and could not breathe fully for months. Keyontae Johnson (Florida MBB) and Tommy Sweeney (BC FB & Buffalo Bills) developed heart inflammation called myocarditis that could kill them if they don’t abstain from strenuous activity for several months. Johnson famously collapsed in game after a dunk against FSU and had to be put into a medically induced coma.

A host of high school coaches and athletes have also met with equally tragic results albeit to less fanfare. This is to say nothing of the perpetuation of the virus via spread to friends and family.

Watching sports has now turned into a moral quandary. Especially with light at the end of the tunnel so close.

The End in Sight

It seems likely that the average American should be able to get the COVID-19 vaccine by April or May 2021. Wild speculation but I’d wager the NFL, NBA, and NCAA could get doses of the vaccine for players, coaches, and key staff by March. (Side note: this would probably require NCAA athletes to be classified as essential workers, which should effectively end their amateur status and usher in at least NIL payments. For a lot of reasons, this is the way but that is another entire separate article). Thus, we are looking at a 3 month risk window. Maybe 4 or 5 months if these leagues are not able to secure vaccines early.

Many players don’t want to participate in this high risk window. Even if they make it through physically unscathed they undergo a tremendous psychological toll as well. Duke WBB; almost all of the FCS, D2, and D3 schools; and the Ivy League decided to cancel their seasons due to COVID. You may be aware that many NFL players and high profile 2021 draft prospects also decided to opt out. Similarly, 11 NCAA bowl games have been cancelled and 17 eligible teams have decided to opt out of bowls entirely due to COVID.

Bubble Up or Shut Down

Let’s make it simple. Leagues for which it still makes financial sense to operate in a bubble and continue their season should do so. Leagues for which it doesn’t make financial sense should not play until after widespread vaccination in 2021. If you can’t afford to protect your players you can’t afford to have a season.

High income leagues like the NFL, NBA, and P5/6 NCAA revenue sports can surely afford bubbles. Some others probably cannot.

The NFL didn’t institute a bubble for their regular season due to the number of people and length of time that would be involved. The playoffs kick off on Jan 9 and the Super Bowl is on Feb 7. So, the longest period of time a team would be in their bubble is roughly a month. With the top seeds from each conference on bye for round 1 it is likely the eventual Super Bowl participants will be in bubble for less time.

Several bowl games have instituted bubbles themselves. Kudos to them, the rest should follow suit. At this point, everyone would be in their respective bubbles for a matter of weeks or even days.

The NBA and TBT proved that a bubble can be a viable thing over a longer time period in 2020. 2021 can be just as successful for them and college basketball as well.

The NCAA already announced that March Madness will take place in a bubble in Indianapolis. However, a lot of damage can be done between now and then. Short term mini-bubbles don’t seem to be the answer either as the biggest risk is not playing against other athletes who have all been frequently tested. Rather the risk that comes along with living and interacting with others in close proximity. There has been talk about each conference doing their own bubble for league play but it doesn’t seem like much traction has been made there.

Legends Coach K and Rick Pitino have publically expressed their reservations at playing a season in the height of a pandemic. The latter called for delaying the season and potentially holding May Madness. You know when Slick Rick Pitino is the voice of reason you are in uncharted territory.

It would behoove the NBA to return to the bubble model that they pioneered on such a grand scale. For 2021, the NBA and the NBAPA have agreed on COVID restrictions such as not participating in social gatherings with more than 15 people and only going to approved restaurants. But that doesn’t do a lot of good when a large portion of the COVID surge is coming from small indoor gatherings. Even if the rules are followed, they are not sufficient. And we all know how good star athletes are at following rules. Especially when women are involved.

COVID-19 has already cost us so much and the end is within our grasp. Lets not put these young men and women at further risk at the peak of this thing for mere entertainment.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of John Glowatz.