Why the NBA Shut Down First: How Partisan Polarization Informs Sports and Public Health
This is a pre-print of a chapter by Andrew M. Lindner and Daniel N. Hawkins that is published in Common Ground's Time Out: National Perspective on SPort and the Covid-19 Lockdown edited by in Jörg Krieger, April Henning, Lindsay Parks Piper, and Paul Dimeo. https://doi.org/10.18848/978-1-86335-232-1/CGP
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owners concluded a conference call regarding the Covid-19 pandemic. They believed that Commissioner Adam Silver would soon announce that games would proceed in empty arenas. While European soccer leagues had canceled matches, just the day before the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) had taken the more tepid step of announcing that the March Madness tournaments would be played without fans in the stands. There were only about a thousand confirmed cases of coronavirus in the United States at that time, and the NBA owners were divided on how to proceed. According to Ramona Shelburne’s (2020) reporting for ESPN, the respective owners of the Golden State Warriors, the Oklahoma City Thunder, and the Houston Rockets argued for a temporary postponement of games. But the majority of owners prevailed in support of the less drastic plan in which the season would continue as scheduled, albeit without the presence of spectators. Meanwhile, in Oklahoma City, Rudy Gobert, star center for the Utah Jazz, was confined to a hotel room, awaiting the results of a Covid-19 test he had taken that morning. As his teammates warmed up on the Thunder’s court and fans took their seats, Gobert received the news that he had tested positive for the contagious and potentially deadly virus. Minutes from the 8:00 PM EST tipoff, as the general managers of the Jazz and Thunder, Oklahoma City public health officials, and Adam Silver scrambled to formulate a new plan, the arena announcer told fans that there would be a thirty-minute delay of game (Shelburne 2020; Cacciola and Deb 2020). The referees directed players to the locker room where they would don protective gear and wait. Shortly thereafter, arena loudspeakers reassured fans that they were safe, but informed them the game was postponed and they were to exit the arena. For Americans at home, the evening of March 11 offered a startling line-up of television, beginning with a halting and hesitant declaration of a national state of emergency from the White House, followed by news of plummeting stock futures and an announcement that beloved Hollywood couple, Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson, had contracted the disease. Finally, viewers watched a surreal scene unfold at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City as the NBA announced that an unnamed player had tested positive for the Covid-19 virus, leading to an immediate suspension of all games. Silver characterized the suspension order as “a split-second decision” (Shelburne 2020). In the twenty-four hours that followed, the National Hockey League (NHL), Major League Baseball (MLB), Major League Soccer (MLS), and the NCAA all followed suit, but by early March, the conditions were such that it seemed pre-ordained that the NBA should be the league to lead the way. In this chapter, we argue that beyond practical considerations, the NBA’s position as the most socially and culturally progressive of the major U.S. sports leagues informed its decision to suspend games, even as both government officials and other sporting entities dithered.