(N)o (B)asketball (A)nytime Soon: The Implications of Suspending NBA Games Due to the Coronavirus 

Written by Ki-Jana Crawford

The Coronavirus has impacted how we live our daily lives. The evidence is everywhere. Restaurants and bars are only permitted to fulfill take-out and delivery orders, and gatherings of 10 or more people are prohibited. Schools have cancelled all in-person classes and commencement ceremonies, and cities have implemented curfews and mandatory quarantines. Nonetheless, the suspension and cancelations of sporting seasons, specifically the NBA, will result in an outcome that goes immeasurably beyond the games themselves.

Confronted with apprehensions and doubts over the Coronavirus and the impact on its players and coaches, its games, its business and its fans, the NBA suspended the 2019-20 season on March 11, 2020 until further notice. Prior to deciding that a suspension of the season was necessary, the NBA had been considering the possibility of playing games in empty arenas, without crowds. However, the NBA’s position quickly changed when a player on the Utah Jazz, center Rudy Gobert, tested positive for the Coronavirus.

With this in mind, the NBA’s decision to suspend the season was crucial for two important reasons. First, the fact that Rudy Gobert tested positive for the Coronavirus meant that the NBA’s overall health was at risk. Meaning, the NBA’s players, coaches, and fans health could be endangered if games continued to be played. For example, Rudy Gobert could infect teammates, coaches, staff, opposing teams’ players and coaches, referees, fans and media, along with his family and friends. Actually, a day after Rudy Gobert tested positive for the Coronavirus, Donovan Mitchell, a teammate of Rudy Gobert, also tested positive for the Coronavirus. Thus, the likelihood that the Coronavirus was going to continue to spread was very high, and like all other organizations, the NBA had an ethical obligation to avoid steps that could worsen the pandemic.

Second, the NBA had a legal duty to refrain from actions that are considered to be negligent. In other words, the NBA teams, along with the NBA itself and the owners of the NBA arenas, had an obligation to reasonably ensure the safety of their facilities and their guest. Markedly, audiences in athletic facilities must be kept safe from dangers that are not open and obvious. To put it differently, courts are often unwilling to impose liability for spectator injuries at sporting events, because game tickets disclaim liability and because spectators are presumed to accept the risks that are inherent in attending sporting competitions. For instance, if an individual purchased courtside tickets to an NBA game or seats along the first-base line of an MLB game, that individual implicitly assumes the risk of a player unintentionally making contact with them if the player dives for a loose ball or runs out of bounds, or a foul-ball coming their way. If that individual is not comfortable with that risk, they should keep their money and purchase a seat further back. However, the risk of contracting the Coronavirus is distinctive — contracting the Coronavirus is not an inherent risk of attending an NBA or MLB game because incubating the Coronavirus has nothing to do with either sport and is not foreseeable when an individual purchases a game ticket.

Moreover, for legal and sensible reasons, the NBA was also required to give its employees accurate information regarding methods to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus. Thus, the NBA had an obligation to educate its employees about the Coronavirus, about means of transmission and about possible symptoms by communicating detailed public health guidelines. More specifically, the NBA had a responsibility to consider changes to reduce overcrowding in order to help protect its employees from the Coronavirus and to help protect itself from liability. Failure to provide such guidance could have potentially exposed the NBA to liability should their employees or fans become infected with the Coronavirus.

Along with the information listed above, the suspension of the NBA season has also impacted the lives of individuals and their families in other forms. For instance, arena employees have lost their hourly wages because they work on a part-time and seasonal basis. Meaning, their earnings are contingent upon whether they are needed to service games. If there are not games, they are not paid. Additionally, because businesses often decide to be located next to sports arenas under the logic that there will be significant foot traffic in and out of the arenas, neighboring businesses are likely to experience a decrease in sales, and as a result may be forced to lay off staff. Lastly, NBA sponsors and partners, who usually enjoy positive and lasting relationships with the NBA, will have to reach resolutions on how the suspension of games impact their sponsorship contracts. Although the current public health dilemma is not permanent and NBA games will eventually resume, sponsors and partners obviously do not want to risk jeopardizing long-term relationships over what is expected to be a short-term drop in revenue.

All things considered, I believe the NBA made the right decision to suspend its season because this suspension helps stop and slow down the spread of the Coronavirus, allowing the health care system to more readily care for patients and flatten the curve. This is important because a large number of people becoming very sick over the course of a few days could overwhelm a hospital or care facility and could result in a shortage of hospital beds, equipment and/or doctors.

Sources

Lisa L. Maragakis, Coronavirus, Social Distancing and Self Quarantine, (Mar. 19, 2020, 4:38 PM).

Michael Kaskey-Blomain, Coronavirus: Donovan Mitchell speaks out for first time since testing positive for COVID-19, (Mar. 19, 2020, 4:44 PM).

Michael McCann, Possible Fallouts From the Suspended NBA Season, Sports Illustrated, Mar. 12, 2020.

Peter Susser & Tahl Tyson, What Are Companies’ Legal Obligations Around Coronavirus?,  Harvard Business Review, Mar. 4, 2020.

Photo courtesy of Ashley Landis via The Dallas Morning News.

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