The NBA went from leading by example to playing catch-up

The NBA and its players have been at odds about health all year and it doesn’t look like it’s ending anytime soon.

Boston - May 30: The Nets Kyrie Irving waves a towel in celebration as the final seconds ticked off ...
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It was all good just a year ago. This time in 2020, the NBA was nearing the end of its 2019-2020 NBA season in its quarantine “bubble” at Walt Disney World in Orlando without a single player, coach or staff member testing positive for COVID-19. Many were singing the NBA’s praises, citing the NBA’s bubble idea as a blueprint for other leagues to follow. A year later, and the NBA has been ravaged by issues ranging from vaccine hesitancy to federal fraud committed to the NBA’s Health and Welfare Benefit Plan.

And for the most part, the NBA has no one to blame but themselves.

The most recent NBA health issue actually has nothing to do with injured or sick players. This week, 18 former NBA players were charged with defrauding the NBA’s Health and Welfare Benefit Plan of $4 million by falsifying invoices for medical treatments they never received but wanted the NBA to reimburse them for. Between 2016-2020, former New Jersey Nets player Terrence Williams received kickbacks from players he provided the falsified invoices for while players like NBA champions Glen Davis and Tony Allen bilked the NBA of millions. In one instance, Davis, Allen, and former Philadelphia 76er Tony Wroten filed for root canals on the same six teeth allegedly done on the same day of April 30, 2016 a month before they filed for crowns done on the same day of May 11, 2016.

The primary health issue that has plagued the NBA since the start of the year revolves around vaccine hesitancy, which both players and the NBA bear responsibility for. News came out as early as February of top NBA players hesitant to advocate for the vaccine in public service announcements, in part because they didn’t want to help out a league that wanted to hold the annual All-Star Game even though players voiced concerns over the potential health risks of an All-Star weekend which typically attracts people from across the country into one area for a series of parties and events.

Los Angeles Clippers star Kawhi Leonard went as far as to say the NBA was “putting money over health.” Then there’s the issue with the league’s fluctuating sentiment around vaccination choices, with NBA commissioner Adam Silver saying in March the NBA won’t require players to get vaccinated and six months later establishing a rule in which unvaccinated players will not be paid for games they miss due to not following any local vaccination mandates. For players already skeptical of the league’s motives with their health in the past, giving players the freedom to chose their vaccination status and then later making one status detrimental to their financial livelihood feels duplicitous.

On the other hand, some players have been spreading harmful anti-vaccination rhetoric. Not only has Brooklyn Nets star Kyrie Irving become the face of the group of unvaccinated players, citing vaccination as a “private” matter, he’s also been liking vaccine conspiracy theory posts on Instagram. LeBron James revealed that he was vaccinated, but in a change from his approach to other social issues, he wouldn’t publicly encourage other players to get vaxxed, comparing it to a personal choice such as choosing a job — a sentiment that vaccinated Golden State Warriors All-Star Draymond Green also publicly expressed. NBA players are role models to millions, and a simple Instagram like on vaccine misinformation or public promotion of not being vaccinated as an equally smart choice as being vaccinated can be all the motivation someone needs to remain unvaccinated. In a country where less than 60% of the population is vaccinated, we need all the positive reinforcements we can get to encourage people to get the jab.

That same bubble that won the NBA much deserved praise also contributed to its 2021 health scares. The NBA was the first sports league to suspend its games due to COVID-19, and it resumed the 2019-2020 season in July 2020 with stadiums at decreased capacity. That season ended on October 11, and the 2020-2021 season — condensed to 72 games instead of the usual 82 — started on December 22. That left teams that went deep into the playoffs like the 2020 NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers, Denver Nuggets, Miami Heat, and Boston Celtics less than three months of off-season rest and preparation, as opposed to the typical four to five months. For the NBA, the condensed schedule was an effort to get the league back on its usual timeline for the 2021-2022 season, prevent the playoffs from overlapping with the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, and preserve their lucrative TV deals that banked on marquee holiday games.

But for many of the players, it was a slap in the face and a shove in the back onto courts where they put their bodies on the line. By June, injuries were piling up at a historic rate, with the average number of players out of games due to non-COVID-related injuries reaching 5.1, the highest in over a decade. While former president of the National Basketball Players Association (NBAPA) Chris Paul assured everyone during the 2021 NBA Finals of every player having a say in the condensed schedule, none were more vocal against it than the most influential player in the game LeBron James. The four-time NBA champion, who missed 20 straight games after suffering a high ankle sprain in late March, lambasted the NBA’s condensed schedule in a June Twitter tirade where he implied the NBA didn’t want to listen to him about the possible deleterious effects of rushing players back on the court, insisting that such a high rate of injuries wasn’t just “part of the game” as some talking heads said.

The physical strain of playing in seasons shaped by the pandemic is evident, but players were also suffering from mental health issues directly related to the pandemic. Players had to perform at the highest level in their sport while either being isolated from their families in the bubble, playing in front of no fans, or constantly worrying about an invisible virus sidelining them or their teammates and threatening their lives in a sport that makes social distancing nearly impossible. Michele Roberts, the executive director of the NBAPA, told Sports Illustrated in late May more players have contacted her inquiring about mental health resources in the eight months prior than in her previous seven years working in her position.

The NBA survived 2020, only to have much of that progress wiped away in 2021. As the new season is set to begin on October 19, the league vs the players' debates over health may be far from over.