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The NBA’s Bold New Plan To Deal With Increasing COVID-19 Cases Is Seating Chart Theater And No Hugging

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 27: LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers wears a face mask on the bench in a game against the Minnesota Timberwolves at Staples Center on December 27, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty aImages License Agreement. (Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images)
Photo: John McCoy/Getty Images

In the past few days, the NBA's concerning COVID-19 issues have multiplied: The Boston Celtics will not play today's game against the Bulls, nor will they play tomorrow's game against the Magic, which means the team will miss three straight games; Kristaps Porzingis was supposed to make his season debut on Monday, only for the Mavericks' game against the Pelicans to be called off; every team who has played the Washington Wizards in the past week has suddenly found their rosters eroded with COVID-19 cases or exposures; some unnamed players have now tested positive twice; Becky Hammon is away from the Spurs and in the COVID-19 protocol; and Kyrie Irving threw a well-attended indoor birthday party.

This breakdown was inevitable the instant the NBA and National Basketball Players Association agreed to adhere to the rough framework of a normal season, with games in home arenas and cross-country travel. To the surprise of nobody, a few guidelines regulating which hermetically sealed restaurants players could eat at and how many, uh, "non-team guests at road hotels" they could, uh, "interact with" were no match for an essentially unmitigated viral pandemic that has infected one in every 14 Americans and killed one in every 900. Kindly asking coaches to wear masks during games and instituting a few baseball-style homestands is as strong an anti-COVID-19 plan as flipping off an avalanche is an anti-getting-buried-alive plan.

With the pace of postponements accelerating, the league's board of governors met on Tuesday to hammer out some new rules. Those new rules will be in place for at least two weeks, and while they do not include the first firm threshold for delaying the season, they do further restrict players and shift the onus on them to keep themselves safe. Highlights include:

    • When in their home cities, players must stay at home at all times unless they need to leave to "perform essential activities" or go to practice. On the road, they can't leave their hotel rooms or "interact with non-team guests."
    • Team planes will now have seating charts, so players that sit near each other on the bench will sit near each other on the plane.
    • No more hugs. Players on different teams can only bump elbows or fists and they are required to "avoid extended socializing." They also have to wear masks on the bench at all times, except for right after they come out of a game. They will be allowed to go sit maskless in "cool down chairs" for a bit.

The new rules rely on an intentionally optimistic conception of on-court transmission as a more rare and difficult phenomenon than it actually is. The Athletic's Tim Cato and Jared Weiss spoke to experts who agreed that the NBA's in-game transmission guidelines fall short of actual prevention. Keeping players from hugging after a game in which they've just spent a few hours on a court in close contact, shit talking, fouling each other and jumping for rebounds, is hygiene theater.

Will these new restrictions be enough to stop the spread of COVID-19, either the current strain or the new more infectious one, from ripping through tiny NBA rosters and forcing mass postponements? There's not any reason to believe they will, since they fail to address the fundamental problem of playing road games in the world's worst COVID-19 hot zone. The only certain outcome here is that players and coaches will be even more unhappy and alienated by having their autonomy restricted.

The NBA delaying the season until everyone's vaccinated, or slowing down the pace of games, or doing anything to harm their fragile revenue streams is off the table, which puts almost all the pressure on players. When someone inevitably steps afoul of the new rules, that failure will be placed on the individual and not the league for drawing up these half-assed rules

I don't want to complain without offering a solution. I actually have an idea to address all these problems, though it would take a real feat of will and no small expense: Teams could all gather in one location, say, Florida for example, and play all the games within the safety of a monitored enclosure of some kind, like a "bubble." This plan is probably too ambitious, though; some drastic measure like that would never work.

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