On March 11, 2020, NBA commissioner Adam Silver stunned the sports world by shutting down the season. For many, that was a turning point in realizing how much COVID-19 would change our lives and society. Two days later, then-President Donald Trump declared a national emergency.
On Tuesday, Silver might have once again shifted thinking on the pandemic.
“This virus will not be eradicated,” Silver bluntly told ESPN’s Malika Andrews in an interview. “And we’re going to have to learn to live with it.” He added the league, which has already postponed seven games in December, has no plans to suspend the season.
Silver’s remarks arrive as the NBA has seen a surge in players entering COVID-19 protocols. As of Tuesday afternoon, more than 100 players had entered the protocols in December, or about a fifth of the league’s 530 athletes, and more than 80 are currently unavailable. Teams are scrambling to find healthy players from the G League and elsewhere. Several coaches and executives, including Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri, have also dealt with COVID-19 issues.
The rise, Silver explained to Andrews, mainly reflects the newly spreading omicron variant. Although medical experts caution that it is too early to draw firm conclusions, omicron appears to be much more contagious and vaccine-resistant than other variants. The Centers for Disease Control finds that 73% of new COVID cases are attributed to omicron, which is blamed for the latest COVID-19 surge across the country.
With the pandemic soon entering its third year, there is increasing concern that COVID-19 will stick around indefinitely. It could become an endemic disease that, like malaria in the tropics, remains present. While the prospect of COVID-19 lingering is unsettling, there are mitigating factors. More effective medicines and better treatments continue to surface. To that point, President Joe Biden stressed in remarks on Tuesday that vaccinated people tend to experience only mild and very manageable symptoms.
Expect leagues and players’ associations, including the NBA and NBPA, to gradually tweak their approaches to COVID-19 to meet the changing realities of the virus. Under labor law, the two groups must assent to testing procedures as terms of employment. Neither leagues nor unions—nor their sponsors or broadcasting partners—want a repeat of 2020, with shutdowns and lost games. At the same time, all involved want to ensure safety and opportunities for players to opt out without forfeiting their careers.
The NFL and NFLPA recently negotiated a new approach to COVID-19 that the NBA and other leagues might replicate. The approach allows for opt-outs where players who opt out won’t be paid for the balance of the season but will suffer no other penalty. The NFL also eschews testing of vaccinated players who are asymptomatic. Unvaccinated players and vaccinated players exhibiting symptoms still face testing, but players who have COVID-19 and are asymptomatic will play. Some NFL players, who usually sign non-guaranteed contracts, might feel incentivized to refrain from acknowledging symptoms.
Given their relative youth and high level of fitness, pro athletes are well-positioned to avoid the direst of COVID-19 consequences. Yet coaches and team staff might be more vulnerable. Expect leagues and unions to juggle these considerations for the foreseeable future. The same is true for other workplaces and workforces that want to be adaptive and nimble to shifting conditions.
Silver changed the thinking of many on COVID-19 in 2020, and perhaps he’s doing it again as 2021 comes to a close.