The NBA’s Decision to Suspend Its Season Is a Wake-Up Call

Rudy Gobert stands in uniform, mouth open.
Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert, who tested positive for the coronavirus this week, at Talking Stick Resort Arena on Oct. 28 in Phoenix. Christian Petersen/Getty Images

On Wednesday night, the NBA announced that it was suspending its season indefinitely after Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for the coronavirus. In the hours since, numerous other leagues and conferences have announced that they were suspending, postponing, or canceling upcoming events. On Thursday, the panelists from Slate’s sports podcast, Hang Up and Listen, got together to assess this week’s shocking developments and discuss which organizations have handled the pandemic well and which have acquitted themselves poorly. You can read a transcript of part of their conversation below, which has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Joel Anderson: I think Rudy Gobert was the perfect snapshot of our collective response to the coronavirus. A couple of days ago he was jokingly touching reporters’ recorders at a press conference. Then two days later he’s right at the center of the NBA’s unprecedented shutdown. Obviously there are people far outside of sports that are dealing with much more serious implications from COVID-19, but I think it took what the NBA did last night for a lot of Americans to get their heads around how serious this is and how disruptive it’s going to be.

Josh Levin: When we talked about this earlier this week, the reality we were dealing with was, Oh, LeBron doesn’t realize we’re going to need to play without fans, but he’ll get on board. Fast forward 48 hours later, and we’re the ones who seem naïve. Obviously this is what was going to happen, because in the entire universe of people involved in this league—players, coaches, writers, referees—if anybody tests positive for this virus, there is going to be a shutdown. It seems ridiculous that it didn’t occur to us at the time. But I think, for as savvy as we think that we are, it did take a player testing positive for us to realize the extent of this.

Stefan Fatsis: Yeah, I think that’s right. Because we were talking about the hypocrisy of the Ivy League, for instance, taking this dramatic step of canceling its conference tournaments but allowing the two declared champions to travel to play in the NCAAs. The problem was we didn’t say, Well, they shouldn’t be playing the NCAAs in front of no fans, in front of any fans, or at all. It was the “at all” that we were missing. Some writers were picking up on it as of Tuesday and Wednesday. Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated had a piece talking about how if the NBA has a patient zero they’re going to have to shut this down, and that’s exactly what happened. And who looks really naïve now as we talk? It’s every event in every league that hasn’t shut it down.

Anderson: Absolutely. And you could argue that even the pro leagues were being more thoughtful about this than a lot of the college and lower-tier professional leagues. By the time we’re done recording this podcast, things could have changed, but the XFL hasn’t necessarily said that they’re going to cancel games. There were college basketball games going on last night while the country is in a full-blown panic. One thing that occurred to me is that the people with the fewest labor protections are still out there playing. And you get a sense for how reckless organizations are willing to be if workers don’t have those protections.

Fatsis: It was really dramatic last night, watching the NBA shutting down on one channel, and then flicking over to any of the ESPNs and seeing, like, North Carolina playing in the ACC Tournament with plenty of fans in the stands, or the U.S. women’s soccer team was playing Japan in the last game of a tournament. It just was the reminder that none of this shit matters. We like to pretend that sports have this important bonding and cathartic effect, but boy has that been rendered moot.

Levin: I think that we need to give space for the fact that it sucks that this is happening, that it does matter. Sports is genuinely an activity that people bond over and that can provide a respite and a sense of normalcy when shit is just going totally insane. I am going to miss being able to watch basketball.

Fatsis: Right. Well, we were all thinking, if we’re all locked up in our houses, at least we can watch the tournament.

Anderson: The problem is, though, that all these games are played by people, and then those people have to go home. So I agree that sports is important. I would love to sit and watch the Lakers play the Clippers on a soundstage and play a game where everybody’s miked up. But we really have to put sports in their proper context. We have to say: You know what? We just really can’t afford to play games right now. Because ultimately that’s what they are. They’re games.

Levin: The reason this is difficult for people that love sports, that watch sports and care about sports, is that it’s sad that it’s come to this. It’s an indication of the fact that we need to take measures that are very dramatic and that are outside the norm. The reason that they’re outside the norm is that we don’t want to do them. We do want to watch these games. We do want the players to play them.

Anderson: I also just think people don’t want to be inconvenienced. I’m still leaving the house and going to do things. I’m not supposed to be self-quarantined or anything, but I don’t want to disturb my life either. I’m still ordering food from people who may be exposed to the coronavirus. I still went to the grocery store yesterday. We’re all doing these things. We don’t want anything to change because we don’t think anything should fundamentally have to change.

Levin: One thing that a lot of people are noticing is that the Jazz and Thunder players and personnel seemed to have no problem getting access to coronavirus testing when pretty much nobody else in the country is able to get those tests.

Fatsis: I think that there’s a fundamental unfairness there, but the reality is that there’s also a fundamental incompetence. This is less about the structure of the American health care system than it is about the inability of our government to have planned for this, to have accepted the reality that was being articulated by the World Health Organization. In a better world, in a more competently governed world, everyone would be tested. What this shows, if anything, is the exceptionalism of sports in America. That’s not to minimize the fact that all of these players are potential carriers and would have gone into airplanes and back to their communities. They all need to be tested. It’s urgent, but thousands and thousands of other Americans should be tested too.

Anderson: Right now it seems like the NBA is one of the best-run organizations in American life because they took the lead on this in a really precarious time. It’s not like they’ve had a great year, starting off with the fight with China. They’ve had Kobe’s death. It’s been bad news after bad news after bad news for the NBA this year. They could use this money. They could use the exposure. They’d have the sports scene to themselves, but they were willing in a moment of crisis to take the lead and take really drastic action. Even though, obviously, there’s a lot of inequities and they’ve had the ability to get these coronavirus tests before anybody else, I think it’s also important to point out that they were willing to make a hard decision when a lot of other people were not. They stuck their necks out there. For that they should be applauded.

Listen to this episode of Hang Up and Listen below, or subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play, or wherever you get your podcasts.