(BTW, I wrote this a week ago before Fauci copied my idea. I sent it to people to get published but alas, it didn’t get any takers. Also, I wrote about quarantining athletes a month before it hit the mainstream. You can read about that here.)
The idea of quarantining NBA athletes in Vegas to attempt a season has been floated in several news articles in the past two weeks. Since the NBA floated the idea publicly, it has received some pretty harsh criticism from writers generally supportive of the NBA, people like Zach Lowe at ESPN or Bill Simmons and his staff at The Ringer.
These critiques are rightly skeptical, concerned about removing tests and medical personnel from sick patients. And some rightly wonder whether placing athletes in a limited environment is actually a recipe for uncontrolled spread of the virus in a small area. We saw this play out on the Diamond Princess cruise ship out February, and that searing experience has put us all on guard.
The problem with these critiques is that they are still only reacting to our current situation, and not where will be in 6 weeks. Right now we are in the first wave of the pandemic, thousands of people are dying every day in the US, and of course right now it is ludicrous to think of utilizing the resources needed to pull off a safe Vegas version of the NBA playoffs. But here’s why they’re wrong:
We are headed toward the Lull.
The way this disease is playing out in the US (and in other places as well), in about 6-8 weeks cases will be on the dramatic decline. We will be in a completely different environment, in fact a very dangerous period of calm. And each of the skeptics’ concerns will have an entirely different trajectory during the Lull. In order, from least serious to most, is why I think they’re wrong.
1). Tests will no longer be in short supply:
The US is currently testing about 130,000 people a day for the Coronavirus, and this supply is only increasing. A quick-acting test is hitting the market, and serological tests that detect antibodies will become more common as well. By early June, there will likely be thousands and thousand of surplus test kits available. We may even be able to tell fairly efficiently whether people have at least short-term immunity to COVID-19. The combination of plentiful, quick tests (and lots and lots of workers trained to do those tests) will mean that the NBA will not be taking tests from needed patients, it in fact will be using tests that are sitting idle.
2. Hospitals will no longer be as understaffed:
Similar to the testing situation, the rush of medical students and recall of doctors for an all hands-on-deck approach will have eased. During the Lull, doctors will skills in immunology, testing, and treatment will likely be more available than they are currently. I say likely because this outlook is somewhat murkier than it is with COVID-19 tests. Other outbreaks will be taking place overseas, and of course the supply of doctors and nurses cannot be scaled up in the same manner as testing. But it is likely that experts will be available who can help the NBA execute this program. And as I will highlight later, there are good reasons they may want to get involved.
3. People need jobs, and billionaires aren’t going to pay for their employees to sit idle forever.
Sports is ultimately about money, but that revenue doesn’t just go to millionaire players and billionaire owners. The huge amounts of revenue generated by professional sports support lots of well-paid jobs. Beyond the staff of each individual team, beneficiaries include umpires and officials, employees in the league office, television network staff, freelancers in audio/video production, and countless others involved in support: vendors, janitors, facilities repair, and of course, to all the writers and journalists and programs that cover what’s happening on the court. And that giant source of revenue is gone. If the season is canceled, many of those jobs will be lost. The economic ripple effects of a lost season will continue for years. Revenue will fall off in 2020, but it may not entirely return in 2021, 2022, 2023. Many of those jobs may not come back.
4. Safety concerns miss the real danger during the Lull.
The biggest critique of all is that the idea of putting NBA players in a sealed location is reckless. If the virus gets out in a closed environment, it may spread quickly and uncontrollably. This perspective makes sense now , when we are all safely ensconced in our homes and players challenge each other to virtual combat from their manses in Westwood. But by mid-June it will be far safer in a quarantine zone at the Bellagio than out in general society.
What writers don’t realize is that the Lull will actually be the most dangerous time in this entire pandemic. Come June 1, there will be a lot of pressure for things to get “back to normal”. And Trump will cave to this pressure. The economic damage will be too great, Fox News business hosts will cry the stock market, and Trump’s re-election campaign will loom over every decision. Trump will ignore the risks of re-opening without an effective strategy. People will return to work, start socializing again, and go back to restaurants. We won’t exactly be status quo, but social distancing is hard. People will need to get out, and the president is not going to stop them.
All this would be ok, if the US were handling this like South Korea, but we’re not. There is a next to zero chance that the most disorganized and dysfunctional presidency in history will have set up a national testing and tracking program adequate to keep the virus at bay.
And so for 6 weeks or so starting in June, thinks will look quasi-normal. We’ll be eating ice cream, going to the pool, and having cookouts on Independence Day. And all the while the virus will be silently spreading again. Only this time, it will have many times the original distribution than in February.
In this scenario, a quarantined facility in Vegas could be the safest place on the planet for NBA players. Instead of spending time around family and in clubs where the virus will be spreading unchecked, the NBA Village can have near-daily testing of everyone on site and strict monitoring of all social contacts. It will be the one place doing exactly what all of us need to get back to normal life while we await a vaccine. And this is why this experience of NBA players locked up together will actually be invaluable for US medical personnel. Because the virus may get through into the NBA Village, the effort needed to plan for how to effectively test and track NBA players and personnel in case of a breach will give doctors, public health officials, and technical personnel desperately needed experience. They will be running the prototype testing program that will be enacted later this fall, after the crest of the second wave of pandemic.
In this probable future, we can enjoy great athletes competing for glory unencumbered by a pricking of conscience. LeBron can go for his fifth title, the NBA can keep some momentum going for the post-pandemic universe, and thousands of people who work in/adjacent to the league, at TNT and ESPN, and even at websites like the Ringer, will be able to keep their jobs amid a captive audience. And maybe support something that will do some good. I say again: let’s go to Vegas!