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Professional sports have provided more than just entertainment amid COVID-19




As a country, we have yearned for any modicum of normalcy throughout the uncertain times that the COVID-19 pandemic has created. Sports are one of the potential escapes from our reality. After months of longing for and pursuing the return of sports, they are here at last. And they have not disappointed, providing value far beyond mere entertainment. While sports' potential as a catalyst for positive change is perhaps more accepted now than ever before, it may nevertheless remain understated.


Colin Kaepernick kneeling for the national anthem in 2016 cemented his legacy as the martyr for athletes speaking out about racial inequality.[1] If Kaepernick is the martyr, Lebron James is the torchbearer. Never quiet to speak out about social and political issues, Lebron has spearheaded the NBA's ongoing "More Than a Vote" campaign with the lofty goal of eradicating voter suppression.[2] While all of these racial inequality and social reform initiatives have garnered much publicity in recent months, and deservedly so, there has been noticeably less attention on the potential sports have to advance medical research and improve the effectiveness of COVID-19 protocols.[3]


When I speak of sports in such optimistic light, I am largely referring to the National Basketball Association (NBA) and, to a lesser extent, the National Hockey League (NHL). While both the NBA and NHL accomplished the incredible feat of having not a single positive case once entering the respective bubbles,[4] Major League Baseball (MLB) and the National Football League (NFL) have quite a different track record.[5] Ultimately, the NBA has shown us the potential of sports at their height and that all other leagues should pursue. Professional sports aid in our collective response to the COVID-19 pandemic by funding research.[6]

Specifically, the NBA funded new saliva test research at Yale.[7] It should come as no surprise that professional sports leagues are committing their resources, as much as half a million dollars in the aforementioned case,[8] to fund such research given not only their vast capital resources but also their economic interest in ensuring their players and personnel take the most effective precautions. In addition, live sporting events are a significant source of revenue for the leagues, so they want to return to having full stadiums as quickly as possible. However cynical you may be of their motives, major sports leagues helping to fund research relating to COVID-19 is good for all.


In addition to funding research, numerous types of new technology were tested in the NBA's famous "bubble."[9] Perhaps most well-known is the Oura rings, which monitor users' temperature, heartrate, and other biometric data.[10] Players also logged their daily vitals on an app and used Bluetooth thermometer and smart pulse oximeter devices.[11] The NBA, along with the host of its bubble, Disney, repurposed the "Disney Magic" bands that guests at its amusement parks would typically wear to track the whereabouts of the players and personnel in the bubble.[12] Although it is difficult to say any one of these particular measures was cause for the NBA's success in returning to play without a single positive case of the virus, all of them together were effective.[13]

Despite the NBA bubble's success, it is not a perfect case study. Although the NBA allegedly ordered 2,000 of them, apparently only around 25% of players and personnel were wearing the Oura rings, which was optional under the NBA's policy.[14] Similar to wearing masks and the COVIDWISE contact tracing app that Virginia rolled out not long ago,[15] the technology that these rings provide is only effective if the overwhelming majority of the population under study is wearing them.[16] Thus, their actual effectiveness is far from proven.[17]

All that being said, the return of sports should be celebrated for many reasons beyond giving us something to watch other than Tiger King, which captured America by storm in the beginning of quarantine.[18] Sports are directly funding the medical research needed to save hundreds of thousands of lives and indirectly stimulating the economy that needs to be revitalized to save the livelihoods of just as many others.[19] We can only hope that we have reached the fourth quarter of this physically and mentally tolling quarantine, but no matter what, we know that sports will not give up until they hear the final whistle. And they will win, along with all of us.


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Noah is a second-year law student at the University of Richmond School of Law.

[1] See Tadd Haislop, Colin Kaepernick Kneeling Timeline: How Protests During the National Anthem Started a Movement in the NFL, Sporting News (June 9, 2020), https://www.sportingnews.com/us/nfl/news/colin-kaepernick-kneeling-protests-timeline/xktu6ka4diva1s5jxaylrcsse.

[2] Cf. Emmanuel Morgan, More Than a Vote is More Than a Statement for Lebron James and Other Athletes, L.A. Times (July 30, 2020), https://www.latimes.com/sports/story/2020-07-30/more-than-a-vote-lebron-james.

[3] E.g., Kevin Stankiewicz, NFL's Goodell: "We're Going to Stand Behind Our Players" Against Any Backlash Over Protests, CNBC (Sep. 2, 2020, 1:29 PM), https://www.cnbc.com/2020/09/02/nfls-roger-goodell-on-backlash-to-player-protests-over-racial-justice.html.

[4] Kelcie Pegher, Coronavirus Today: The NBA's Bubble Worked, L.A. Times (Oct. 12, 2020, 7:58 PM), https://www.latimes.com/science/newsletter/2020-10-12/coronavirus-today-nba-bubble-success-covid-lakers-coronavirus-today (statement of Lebron James) ("We had zero positive tests.").

[5] Nick Lichtenberg, The NBA and MLB Show Opposite Reopening Strategies — and One of Them is Already Striking Out. Here's What Businesses and Schools Can Learn from the Great Pro Sports Reboot, Business Insider: Newstex Blog (July 29, 2020), https://www.businessinsider.com/nba-mlb-reopening-lessons-for-businesses-schools-coronavirus-2020-7; Markham Heid, NBA Bubble - How Does It Work? Science Behind the NBA Bubble, Popular Mechanics (Aug. 25, 2020), https://www.popularmechanics.com/science/health/a33796756/nba-bubble/. See Kevin Seifert, NFL's Chief Medical Officer Dr. Allen Sills Against Shifting to Bubble Environment, ESPN (Oct. 13, 2020), https://www.espn.com/nfl/story/_/id/30108928/nfl-chief-medical-officer-dr-allen-sills-shifting-bubble-environment (discussing opposition to transition to bubble environment despite an outbreak of recent COVID-19 cases).

[6] See infra note 8.

[7] Chris Hine, COVID Saliva Test Gets Big Boost from Wolves, NBA, StarTribune (Aug. 25, 2020), https://www.startribune.com/timberwolves-doctor-playing-key-role-in-covid-fighting-saliva-test/572208252/?refresh=true.

[8] Id.

[9] Lisa Eadicicco, The NBA Bubble Has Rolled Out Some Wild Technology to Help Keep Players, Coaches, and Staff COVID-free — Including a $300 Smart Ring that Can Monitor Biometric Data, Business Insider (Aug. 26, 2020, 2:04 PM), https://www.businessinsider.com/nba-bubble-oura-smart-ring-used-by-quarter-of-campus-2020-8.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Pegher, supra note 4 (stating that the NBA's "elaborate plan" worked).

[14] Id.

[15] Geoffrey A. Fowler, I Downloaded America's First Coronavirus Exposure App. You Should Too., Wash. Post. (Aug. 18, 2020), https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2020/08/17/coronavirus-exposure-notification-app/.

[16] Cf. Eadicicco, supra note 10.

[17] Id.

[18] See generally Taylor Borden, One Murder-for-Hire Plot, 5 Husbands, and 176 Tigers: Meet Joe Exotic, the Man Nicholas Cage Will Play in an Upcoming TV Series, Business Insider (May 4, 2020), https://www.businessinsider.com/who-is-joe-exotic-maldonado-passage-tiger-king-netflix.

[19] See generally Hine supra note 8.

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