Why the NBA Is Handling the Pandemic Better Than the MLB

A string of positive cases doesn’t bode well for the rest of baseball season

Credit: Pool / Getty Images

Sports fans recently enjoyed some respite as both the NBA and MLB returned to TV screens across the country. But things are different now as both leagues have been transformed by the Covid-19 pandemic: In lieu of cheering crowds at the NBA’s Disney World arena in Orlando, Florida, virtual fans flicker as viewers are instructed to “tap to cheer” via the NBA app. And at the few baseball fields that are hosting MLB games, some of the fans are made of cardboard, supplemented by loud noises.

But a rash of Covid-19 cases among players and staff has cast a pall over the rest of the baseball season. On Sunday afternoon, the St. Louis Cardinals reported six cases among players and staff; a week ago, the Miami Marlins had 20 among players and coaches. League employees are getting sick too, and the MLB schedule has been thrown into disarray. The NBA, meanwhile, has not reported any positive cases in its Disney World bubble so far despite basketball being a much more close-contact sport.

It appears that the NBA is doing something right.

In June, the NBA sent a 100-page document to players and employees, laying out extremely restrictive guidelines for life inside the Disney World bubble, where players will live and play until October. It includes a protocol for aggressively testing players and quarantining those who test positive, and it also outlines extreme measures for contact tracing, the process of identifying any individual that has come into contact with a person who tested positive. As I reported in Elemental in June, the NBA is using “video technology” to identify moments of close contact, defined as players getting within six feet of someone for at least 15 minutes (per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines) or being exposed to “infectious secretions or excretions.”

The MLB has a 100-page manual for restarting the league, and like the NBA’s guidebook, it includes a plan for what to do if players test positive and a plan for contact tracing. The problem, it appears, is how well these plans are being executed.

As Wall Street Journal baseball writer Jared Diamond reports: “On July 26, when the Marlins played a game against the Philadelphia Phillies despite knowing of four positives, only one player was deemed to have been in ‘close contact’ with an infected person.” Similarly, after Washington Nationals’ Juan Soto tested positive for the virus, his teammates were allowed to continue playing despite the fact that he had practiced with them while infected. Even before the season began, the MLB flew players from the Dominican Republic to practice but did not test them beforehand, and many tested positive after.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is a lot of finger-pointing going on in the MLB now. League commissioner Rob Manfred said on Saturday that the season will continue despite the new positive cases. Meanwhile, some players argued that the league is not doing enough to protect them. Chicago Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo recently tweeted: “Player safety? @mlb let’s sit around for 8 plus hours inside the clubhouse. I’m sure I can find that somewhere in the 113 page player safety protocol.” On July 25, L.A. Dodgers pitcher David Price, who is not playing this season, tweeted: “Part of the reason I’m at home right now is because players’ health wasn’t being put first. I can see that hasn’t changed.” The L.A. Dodgers have adopted its own set of safety rules, which includes wearing a mask in the dugout and keeping players who are not in the lineup out of the dugout. (One wonders why such mask rules were not already enforced.)

In contrast, NBA players on the bench sit six feet apart. The handful of players from other teams who are allowed to attend games as audience members also sit six feet apart wearing masks. Any player who leaves the NBA bubble is forced to quarantine for up to 14 days, as L.A. Clippers guard Lou Williams learned after visiting a strip club in Atlanta.

The New York Times points out that the MLB’s reopening manual didn’t include a protocol for dealing with outbreaks or a threshold for resuspending the league. The NBA’s manual does not include an explicit protocol either, but league commissioner Adam Silver said in June: “Never full steam ahead, no matter what,” adding, “We haven’t put a precise number on it, but if we were to see a large number of cases and see spread in our community, that would of course be a cause to stop as well.”

Diamond at the WSJ reports that the MLB and MLB Players Association plan to improve social distancing and contact tracing and “will be stricter in figuring out who else should be quarantined and monitored if someone tests positive.” But as people in the sports world — and the rest of us out here — are discovering, safety guidelines don’t offer much protection unless people choose to follow them.

Editor, Medium Coronavirus Blog. Senior editor at Future Human by OneZero. Previously: science at Inverse, genetics at NYU.

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