According to several reporters and NBA players, the most significant cause for skepticism about entering the Disney bubble in Orlando aren’t health concerns or social issues - it’s the strict rules and procedures once you enter the bubble. In negotiation with the NBA, the NBPA (player’s union) managed to loosen up some restrictions and make life in the bubble a bit more comfortable. That’s a mistake.
A cautionary tale is developing in Zadar, Croatia, where an exhibition tennis tournament took place. Novak Đoković and his coach Goran Ivanišević organized an exhibition tour with some of the biggest names in tennis. While prepping for the competition, players were involved in community outreach, playing tennis with kids, and doing PR for the tournament. As Zadar is one of the best basketball cities in Europe (and the world), the tennis players crashed the local team’s practice and played some pickup. Here’s proof most modern athletes are highly specialized.
The tournament was going according to plan when just before the final match, an emergency press conference was announced. One of the players, Grigor Dimitrov, had tested positive for COVID-19. The game was canceled, and local health officials took over. Everyone in contact with Dimitrov is being submitted to testing, and there are already several positive players and coaches. Tennis is considered one of the safest sports in the context of COVID-19. Basketball is on the other side of that spectrum.
Let me point something out - the measures at the tennis tournament and connected events were non-existent. After being one of the best countries in tackling COVID-19 (due to stringent measures), Croatia has completely opened up. It is at a level of recommendations due to upcoming elections, and it’s dependence on tourism. There was no social distancing or any other noticeable measure at the tournament. The Disney bubble is planned to be the complete opposite. But, this story serves a valuable lesson - the greatest risk factor is human nature.
“It’s about the data and not the date.”
While it’s understandable the NBA had to set a date and start the process of return (with the possibility of canceling everything if it turns out healthy standards couldn’t be met), more and more we see that “the date” is becoming more important than “the data.” Remember, the devil’s in the details.
For instance, players are supposed to get rid of a deck of cards once a game is finished and wear masks while playing. But that’s not very convenient; the masks limit your breathing and are uncomfortable. Can you see a scenario in which they don’t? I sure can. What about playing doubles in table tennis? Someone would probably reprimand them, but how do you enforce these? Especially if they just spent a few hours battling for position, sweating, and breathing all over each other on the basketball court. But a few hours after that, a deck of cards is the issue? NBA players who are used to live by a special set of rules, and don’t want to go to Orlando because it’s going to be highly disciplined, are going to bend some of the rules.
The story from Croatia demonstrates how quickly the virus spreads if a lot of people are confined in an environment, and someone is infected. Keep in mind, false-negative tests are still “a key unknown of the pandemic.” That means you can get a negative test for several days, while actually spreading the virus. A recent study estimates that up to 44% of infected get the virus from presymptomatic cases.
“One model using COVID-19 cases from seven previously published studies suggests that the false-negative rate is 100 percent on day one of exposure, which falls to 38 percent on day five (when symptoms on average appear) and then a minimum of 20 percent on day eight.”
A bubble is great if everyone is healthy, but horrible if someone is infected. That’s what epidemiologists call a “superspreader” event. Think cruise ships. All these risks stress the importance of abiding by social distancing rules. The biggest complaint the players have - comfort and lifestyle - should be the last thing on their list. If we’re going to do the bubble, we have to do it right.
An opportunity to raise awareness on social justice issues and bring back some entertainment for millions of fans can quickly turn into a disaster. I hope it doesn’t happen, but if the no.1 reason for concern isn’t health and safety? That doesn’t instill confidence.