But crucially, the league’s rules were relatively toothless in enforcing players’ off-the-field behavior. In addition to the 18 infected Marlins, 13 St. Louis Cardinals players and staff tested positive in just the second week of the season. Somehow, the disease was getting into clubhouses and sweeping through. Rumors spread that the Marlins organized a team trip to a local strip club; similarly, the Cardinals are battling rumors of a jaunt to a casino. But in a way the circumstances are immaterial; the positive test results and their implications are very real. The league hasn’t made readily available the collective number of players and staff who have tested positive for the coronavirus, but members of the Philadelphia Phillies staff, as well as players on the Washington Nationals (Juan Soto) and Boston Red Sox (Eduardo Rodriguez) have had confirmed cases. The Cardinals haven’t played a game since July 29.
Manfred scolded players on July 31, just eight days after the season’s beginning, saying it could end entirely if their behavior didn’t change. On Aug. 5 a revised list of safety protocols was released, making mask-wearing mandatory for all players and staff in stadiums while not on the field, and prohibiting travel outside hotels without the approval of MLB “compliance officers,” but those measures’ effectiveness remains to be seen. Much like leaving your house for a socially distanced evening stroll, watching a random MLB game can be a strange experience: An unmasked base runner sliding headfirst into a gaitered catcher at home, with a masked-up umpire behind them. Whatever the underlying rules and ethos in each clubhouse, what you see on the field has an anything-goes quality—much like America for the past few months, and seemingly the foreseeable future.
What the NBA and the other “bubble” leagues, including the WNBA and NHL, are doing reflects an exceptionalism and level of effort that are otherwise absent from much of the American landscape. There’s no “league” to set the rules for all Americans, and a big and diverse country was never likely to stick to one approach. But Washington pushed in the exactly wrong direction from the start: Since mid-March, the Trump administration has discouraged widespread testing, promoted quack cures and urged agency officials and governors to stick their fingers in their ears and proceed with business as usual. The federal government largely asked states and localities to fend for themselves, leaving them vulnerable to the decisions of their neighbors—much like a team living in the bubble that’s forced to play a team that’s been out partying.
So now what? For anyone worried about America’s ability to learn from examples, it’s instructive, and potentially alarming, to look to the sport that’s usurped baseball in the collective consciousness over the past 30 years: professional football, which is planning its yearly return to the field in mid-September.
The National Football League is eschewing the bubble as well, taking a fanless, precautionary approach to its season that’s not dissimilar from that of the MLB. But there’s a crucial wrinkle that sets football apart from its counterparts: Its players’ salaries are largely nonguaranteed, meaning they receive only a small portion of their agreed-upon salary upon signing a contract, with the rest largely earned through bonuses and performance incentives.
Players who choose to opt out of the 2020-21 season due to safety concerns, as many already have, will receive a stipend in lieu of such compensation. According to an agreement between the league and the NFL players union the amount of that stipend will depend on their risk category: Those deemed medically at “high risk” will receive $350,000 for the reason, while those at “low risk” will receive just $150,000.
That leaves wary NFL players in the “low risk” group, who face less favorable terms in opting out, in a situation that plenty of less brawny, everyday Americans are likely familiar with: Expose themselves to the virus, or miss out on their paycheck. While such a hit to one’s income is easier to weather for a wealthy professional athlete than an ER nurse or a Starbucks barista, they’re still each difficult decisions, imposed from above by an authority structure unwilling to take the bold and unilateral action needed to prevent such a dilemma in the first place.
Which is what makes today’s NBA viewing experience such a joy. To watch the so-far-thrilling slate of games, with their innovative broadcast presentation and relative freedom from worry on the players coaches, and staff members’ behalf about Covid infection, is like a temporary escape to a better world. That world is possible only because of the efforts, sacrifices and compromises made by a diverse group of people who didn’t let their competing interests get in the way of their one shared interest—that is, putting elite-level basketball on the court and making a lot of money while doing it.