What in the Covid is Going on: The NBA & NHL

Professional sports leagues are being ravished with covid issues — This is Part II of a two-part series

Stop me if you have heard this before, covid is running rampant throughout sports leagues. If it sounds familiar, you are right. It seems like the sports world came to a halt just yesterday and covid vaccinations would be an end to outbreaks. However, with the new omicron variant proving to be as contagious as ever, leagues have made necessary rollbacks on restrictions to ensure games can continue to be played.

With that, we are going to investigate the three major sports leagues and the various covid issues occurring in them as this time in this two-part series.

To see the NFL investigation, see here.

The National Basketball Association

The NBA is no stranger to taking drastic measures to ensure organizations and their players stay safe during the pandemic — going as far as creating a covid-free bubble in Disney World for the 2019-2020 season. Since the NBA bubble, the League found success in their encore season by limiting both inner team interactions and fan capacity. Team outbreaks occurred and games were moved, but overall, things felt ‘normal.’

The sentiment going into this season was optimistic. With vaccines and a greater understanding of the virus, the NBA rolledbacked many of the protocols that worked the season prior. However, this season has mirrored that of last despite the newfound covid advancements. Teams such as the Chicago Bulls have been overwhelmed with covid outbreaks — causing the league to postpone two of their games thus far. On Sunday, December 19, five games were postponed alone. As a result, the NBA has been forced to reimplement many of the protocols they thought were of yesteryear.

The NBA is requiring increased testing from December 26 through January 8. Further, a mask mandate is going into effect for players, coaches, and staff while at games and in the locker, weight, and training rooms. Seemingly as an incentive, players who received a booster shot more than two weeks ago will not be subject to the Leagues gameday testing[1].

Per Baxter Holmes, 70 players[2] (and likely counting) have gone into the League’s health and safety protocols this month, including many notable stars such as the Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Lakers’ Russel Westbrook, and the Nets’ James Harden, Kevin Durant, and Kyrie Irving.

Both the Lakers and the Nets bring further wrinkles to the present outbreak. The Lakers recently signed former NBA all-star Isaiah Thomas after being granted permission from the League — Thomas had been out of the League for an extended period —using a ‘hardship contract.’ The hardship contract allows teams to sign an additional player beyond the roster-size limit.

The NBA and the NBA Players Association updated team roster rules after the Lakers signed Thomas, permitting teams to sign a replacement player for each positive covid case the team has. Further, if two players enter covid protocol, a team must sign at least one player (two players if three players are out, etc.)[3]. Additionally, any player signed will not count towards a team’s yearly salary or potential luxury tax payment.

On the other hand, the Nets turned to their own roster to gain support — allowing Irving to rejoin the Nets as a part-time player. Irving has been unable to play this season due to his unvaccinated status. In New York City, all members of professional sports teams need to be vaccinated. Previously, the Nets chose to bar Irving from playing part-time, however, with the recent outbreaks, Irving was granted the ability to play in away games. Sadly, the League and its fans will have to wait longer to see Irving lace-up again. Irving entered health and safety protocol on December 18th.

Speaking of restricted cities, Ontario recently implemented new covid rules, affecting professional sports — specifically for the NBA’s Toronto Raptors and away teams. Beginning on December 18th, the Raptors will be limited to 50 percent seating capacity. Further, starting on January 15, 2022, Canada will bar entry to unvaccinated pro athletes.

This also affects the NHL and its Canadian Clubs.

The National Hockey League

The NHL’s story is like that of the NBA.

In continuing the effects of the newly implemented changes many Canadian based teams, the Leafs must limit their seating capacity to 50 percent as well as any unvaccinated athlete — starting January 15, 2022 — will be barred from entering Canada (Seven NHL teams), thus unable to participate in Canadian away games. Furthermore, the NHL suspended all games with “cross-border travel” until after Christmas break[4].

With the cross-border suspension, the League has now postponed 39 games, surely more games will likely be suspended moving forward. Like the NBA, the NHL is experiencing a resurgence in covid outbreaks, with over 10 percent of the League entering health and safety protocol — despite having only four unvaccinated players[5]. Eight teams — the Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs, Detroit Red Wings, Colorado Avalanche, Columbus Blue Jackets, Florida Panthers, Boston Bruins and Nashville Predators — shutdown their season for an extended period due to their high infection rate[6].

All players and coaches are subject to daily testing and additional pre-game testing may be required for teams experiencing a high volume of covid cases. The newly implemented safety precautions will be effectuated until at least January 1, 2022 and will be reevaluated on a rolling basis — with determinative measures coming no later than January 7th [7].

To make matters worse, the NHL must concern itself with determining if its players will be allowed to participate in the upcoming Winter Olympics in February. At this juncture, the League is allowing participation, however, if the NHL decides otherwise, it has until January 10th to opt-out of the Winter Games without facing a financial penalty. Nonetheless, the NHL can disallow participation up until players are scheduled to travel to China[8]. If the NHL decides to pull its players from the Olympics, the Olympic roster will be assembled with minor leaguers, European players, and/or unsigned players.

Professional sports leagues are doing their best to balance player safety and fiscal responsibility. If outbreaks continue to occur, I would not be surprised if we see a work stoppage along with a reboot of strict protocols and fan restrictions.

[1] https://www.cbssports.com/nba/news/nba-covid-tracker-five-games-postponed-this-week-trae-young-kevin-durant-among-stars-in-protocols/

[2] https://twitter.com/Baxter/status/1472237991816876033

[3] https://www.espn.com/nba/story/_/id/32907444/nba-nbpa-agree-allow-teams-short-handed-covid-19-sign-replacement-players-memo-says

[4] https://www.espn.com/nhl/story/_/id/32904899/nhl-suspends-games-cross-border-travel-christmas-break-due-covid-19-concerns

[5] https://bleacherreport.com/articles/10014726-nhl-has-only-4-unvaccinated-players-at-start-of-2021-22-season-gary-bettman-says

[6] https://theathletic.com/live-blogs/nhl-updates-seven-teams-shut-down-dec26/eaR1fjDKTWsT/

[7] https://www.espn.com/nhl/story/_/id/32876728/amid-wave-covid-19-cases-nhl-nhlpa-institute-enhanced-protocols-january

[8] https://www.nytimes.com/2021/12/15/sports/olympics/nhl-covid-winter-olympics.html

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3rd year law student and Co-President of the Buffalo Sports ands Entertainment Law Society. I enjoy writing and learning more about the intersection of business, sports, entertainment and law.

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