The least surprising sports development during the coronavirus pandemic has been the stark differences between how the NBA and NFL have approached a global crisis with players, personnel and the public.
NFL executives have insisted they plan to start the 2020 season on time and in full with no contingency, levied a gag order against employees discussing otherwise and issued no public-facing communication from commissioner Roger Goodell. Meanwhile, NBA commissioner Adam Silver has conducted multiple interviews, openly conceding the pandemic could have scheduling ramifications beyond this season.
The divide is not dissimilar to a national debate between politicians who have downplayed the threat of the virus and those who have warned the public of the short- and longterm ramifications of failing to take every necessary precautionary measure. I will let you decide which side will be best prepared to emerge from this.
The NBA’s coronavirus pandemic response
The NBA was naturally the first of the major American sports leagues to shut its doors in the wake of Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert’s positive COVID-19 test on March 11, immediately announcing a hiatus lasting “at least 30 days.” Silver appeared on TNT’s “Inside the NBA” the following night, acknowledging that the 2019-20 season could be lost entirely. A week later, the NBA commissioner appeared on ESPN’s “The Jump” with a clearer understanding of the pandemic, accepting criticism of player access to early testing, outlining conditions for the season’s potential return and discussing creative scenarios to make it happen.
As the self-imposed 30-day mark neared, Silver appeared on a live broadcast on the league’s Twitter feed to announce the extension of the league’s suspension until at least May. He confirmed reports that the NBA is considering all possibilities, including a shortened season and a return to a single site without fans, and outlining potential drop-dead dates for this season before it negatively impacts the 2020-21 campaign.
The NBA has not been without its failings. The league remained on schedule until Gobert’s positive test, even as a San Francisco ordinance required the Golden State Warriors to plan for games without fans. The widespread testing of asymptomatic players as states struggled to obtain kits for the ailing infected was a bad look, and it took public pressure for the Philadelphia 76ers to reverse course on slashing salaries.
Whatever critique you might have of the NBA’s approach to the pandemic, the league has clearly communicated with its employees and fans every step of the way in a manner that has better informed everyone paying attention about the seriousness of the virus and its potential to spread asymptomatically.
The NFL’s coronavirus pandemic response
On the flip side, we have yet to hear word one from Roger Goodell, outside of a brief statement on New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton’s coronavirus diagnosis and several leaked internal memos, including one that threatened teams with disciplinary action should anyone publicly criticize the league’s plan to conduct the draft as scheduled on April 23-25, albeit virtually. (They proceeded to criticize it anonymously.)
The WNBA has also announced plans to conduct its April 17 draft virtually, although there are far fewer moving parts involved in a single-day, three-round operation with a more clearly defined list of prospects. Clear communication and a less authoritarian leadership also tends to lend itself to fewer vocal critics.
Beyond the optics of conducting free agency and announcing multimillion dollar deals as millions of Americans file for unemployment, the NFL has suppressed internal opinion and led fans to believe longterm coronavirus consequences need not be considered. Where the NBA would like to finish its season in some form by Labor Day, as most everyone would, the NFL is acting as if its Sept. 10 start date is set in stone.
Most striking was NFL executive vice president Jeff Pash’s declaration on a conference call last week that the league plans on “playing a full season starting on schedule and having a full regular season and full set of playoffs,” beginning with training camps in July and a sold-out Hall of Fame Game on Aug. 6. A month before the NFL’s planned schedule release, Pash openly conceded that no contingency plans have been discussed for alternatives to a full season with fans. This falls in line with President Donald Trump’s wishes.
At the same time, the NFL’s chief medical officer, Dr. Allen Sills, was warning against even “[beginning] to think about reopening a team sport” in public comments on the league’s website. Likewise, California Gov. Gavin Newsom rebuffed calls for NFL business as usual in September, announcing within hours of Trump’s call with Goodell and other commissioners, “I’m not anticipating that happening in this state.”
What next for the two sports leagues?
The NFL better start making those contingency plans. Leadership from the league is beyond lacking. Goodell has left his advisers to be the face of the most popular sport in the country during a national crisis. He even delegated to three executives the internal calls with a subcommittee of general managers who ultimately recommended postponing the draft, according to Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer, and then ignored their advice while outlawing dissenting opinions in a memo. One NFL GM openly admitted to Yahoo Sports’ Charles Robinson that the league is waiting to see how the NBA handles the next few months.
Yes, the NFL has the luxury of not being in the midst of its season right now, but it took three days after the NBA suspended its season for the NFL to cancel travel for team personnel, free agents and draft prospects, and only then once teams began making that call for themselves. Meanwhile, NBA players were already issuing public-service announcements about the dangers of spreading the virus. One is proactive, the other reactive. We have known which league was which long before a global pandemic made it painfully clear.
The NFL did not change its draft plans until March 22, and it was another three days before the league ordered teams to shut down their facilities. That was around the same time NBA superstar Stephen Curry interviewed leading expert Dr. Anthony Fauci about the COVID-19 pandemic on Instagram Live, helping to raise awareness about the threat of the disease to young people and answering several vital questions.
Given all that has happened to this date, which league do you trust more to best respond to the obstacles ahead during the nation’s fight against the coronavirus? And which do you think will be better prepared for the resumption of play and all the risks that come with it once the curve is flattened? If you have paid any attention to the tenures of commissioners Silver and Goodell, the answer should be obvious. It’s the NBA.
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