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How the omicron spike is changing the NBA's season

ELISSA NADWORNY, HOST:

Christmas Day in the NBA is one of the most anticipated dates on the calendar for sports fans. Teams roll out special jerseys, players unveil new sneakers, and fans can watch their favorite superstar players in a hand-picked head-to-head matchups. But this year is a little different. The NBA, like other major sporting leagues, is currently embattled with a coronavirus outbreak among staff and players. And like other sports leagues, it will continue to play games in the face of calls to suspend the season. More than 120 players have entered the league's COVID-19 health and safety protocol in the month of December.

The result is that many household names will be held out of competition for Christmas Day headliners. And as the omicron variant sweeps across the nation this holiday season, many are wondering just how leagues like the NBA will adjust. To help answer that question, we called Matt Sullivan. He's a journalist and author. He's been reporting on this issue, and he joins us now. Matt Sullivan, welcome.

MATT SULLIVAN: Happy Holidays, Elissa.

NADWORNY: Thanks. So listeners might remember that the NBA was the first sports league to suspend play on the onset of the pandemic, and they eventually played games in a so-called bubble for the remainder of that first season. What about now? How is the league handling COVID protocols and Omicron?

SULLIVAN: Right now, it's more or less an anti-bubble.

NADWORNY: (Laughter).

SULLIVAN: The NBA has some hundred-odd players in its quarantine at the moment, and those cases have overwhelmingly been linked to omicron. But the NBA also has some $30 million in ad revenue to satisfy for its marquee matchups here on Christmas Day, a kind of self-styled holiday in the image of football on Thanksgiving. Except this year, a bona-fide superstar will be missing in each of the primetime games because they have COVID. Now, players and politicians have told me in my reporting for Rolling Stone that that quote makes their blood boil, just how the NBA is really kind of sending mixed signals. You know, player health may come first, but not necessarily at the expense of profit. So for an allegedly progressive league that really did lead the way at the beginning of the pandemic, they've kind of wielded their power into a show-must-go-on kind of moment.

NADWORNY: You reported that NBA Commissioner Adam Silver is looking to other leagues to manage the crisis of breakthrough cases with omicron. I wonder, kind of what was the influence of watching other sports leagues in getting to this moment?

SULLIVAN: Well, the NHL is on a break, taking a hard look at itself. The NBA is taking what public health experts view as a real step backward. Asymptomatic vaccinated football players will no longer be subject to regular testing straight up. And the NFL has injected a mostly kind of voluntary policy, kind of a don't ask, don't tell meets don't tread on me. And when I spoke with NBA players this week for Rolling Stone, they struck me as divided. Some wanted to take back the power of the individual like the NFL, and some, without that regular testing, fear that asymptomatic players are, well, breathing and sweating all over them unnoticed and maybe even putting some fans at risk, to say nothing of the now four older coaches who've tested positive. It's kind of a shadow spread that the NBA can pretty easily crack down upon. But that would, of course, mean that superstars could end up watching these games on the couch again, and that is not good for the business of basketball.

NADWORNY: Right. The NBA Players Association, which represents NBA players, they recently agreed to a revised COVID protocol. That's especially significant given the holiday games. I'm curious. Kind of what is their role, and how are they kind of talking with management?

SULLIVAN: I mean, management tests for COVID more than perhaps any employer in America. The NBA league office is pro-science. But, you know, players are simply fed up with regular testing. They're sick of being, well, not sick while forced into quarantine. And an influential, almost conspiratorial segment of players, if not quite anti-vaxxer, then they're certainly anti-booster. And so the NBA has agreed with its union to test a little more after these Christmas gatherings to get these replacement players on the floor, to get superstars back out there faster from these asymptomatic quarantines, and at least to encourage getting that booster shot. But an official on President Biden's COVID response team who's worked with the NBA in the past, he reminded me this week that there's a difference between saying the right thing to do and, you know, convincing LeBron James to do it. And nobody around the league expects LeBron to be out here telling his fans what to do, even if getting that third shot is the lifesaving thing to do.

NADWORNY: So our listeners may remember that Brooklyn Nets star Kyrie Irving has not played this season in protest over New York's vaccine mandate for home players. But last week, he was welcomed back to the team to play in games outside of New York. What do you think that whole saga tells us about how the NBA is thinking about COVID?

SULLIVAN: I followed Kyrie Irving on and off the court for several years for my book "Can't Knock The Hustle." And, you know, Kyrie might be remembered most for notoriously saying that the Earth is flat, which it's not. And as he continues to boycott some games - the Nets are welcoming him back to road games and a practice, but he's not legally allowed to play at home if he's unvaccinated - but Kyrie's equated this with a larger, quote, "global agenda."

And he's really not alone. A lot of players literally took one for the team and getting at least one job before the season, but their teammates tell me that these anti-booster athletes are the same guys talking about the illuminati in the locker room, about how Joe Biden and big pharma are conspiring to make millions off the vaccines, which is obviously completely untrue.

But now, politicians, they're worried about the Kyrie effect and how - what one New York legislator who's trying to expand that vaccine mandate for performers in New York, he told me that the NBA is, quote, "allowing the vaccine-hesitant players to dominate the news cycle. They're perpetuating conspiracy theories, and at the end of the day, they're putting lives at risk." So it really comes down to, does the NBA want to be the League of Kyrie Irving or the league of science?

NADWORNY: Well, I wonder, finally, how do you see the rest of the season playing out?

SULLIVAN: The question is, is the league going to keep riding the lightning, riding the wave where they're almost having an outbreak or they're responding to a crisis or are they going to be that forward-looking progressive league? They haven't really shown their hand other than to say the games are going to go on for now. We're going to be adaptive. And we're also going to listen to LeBron James when he tells us that he wants to get back out on the court and play. So I'm going to be watching to see whether the NBA is willing to sacrifice a little bit of progress for a little bit of profit or the other way around.

NADWORNY: Well, that was Matt Sullivan. He's a sports journalist and author of "Can't Knock The Hustle: Inside The Season Of Protest, Pandemic, And Progress With The Brooklyn Nets Superstars Of Tomorrow." Matt Sullivan, thank you.

SULLIVAN: Thanks a lot. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.