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March 09, 2020

NBA announces temporary coronavirus restrictions in locker room. What comes next?

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2_Wells_Fargo_Center_sixers_76ersvsCeltics_KateFrese.jpg Kate Frese/for PhillyVoice

The inside of the Wells Fargo Center prior to a Sixers game.

In conjunction with the National Hockey League, Major League Baseball, and Major League Soccer, the NBA announced on Monday evening that they will be restricting locker room and clubhouse access for their teams until further notice.

In a statement provided by the four major leagues, the leagues cited their consultation with public health experts as the reasoning for taking this step:

After consultation with infections disease and public health experts, and given the issues that can be associated with close contact in pre and postgame settings, all team locker rooms and clubhouses will be open only to players and essential employees of teams and team facilities until further notice. Media access will be maintained in designated locations outside of the locker room and clubhouse setting. These temporary changes will be effective beginning with tomorrow's games and practices.

We will continue to closely monitor this situation and take any further steps necessary to maintain a safe and welcoming environment.

This step follows leaguewide memos that have been sent by the NBA suggesting that individual teams need to begin planning for the possibility of games being played behind closed doors, as organizations and countries around the world take precautions against the spread of coronavirus. A conference call is scheduled for Wednesday between the NBA and the owners of each franchise, as the league prepares to discuss growing concerns about the need to play games without fans in attendance.

The response to this specific change with locker room access has come from two primary factions:

  1. Reporters complaining about the change to their workflow 
  2. Fans complaining about the reporters complaining 

So allow me to offer a third perspective — if you're the sort of person who can't get by doing their job reporting with a temporary change to access, you're probably not very good at your job, and anyone who would tell you health and safety should not come first is a dangerous idiot. But if you're the sort of person who doesn't understand the difference/value between press conference access and personal, one-on-one conversations away from the glare of television cameras, you also aren't (or wouldn't be) very good at reporting on a professional sports team. 

Setting that aside, the biggest question is how much this specific change is going to be able to stop the spread of coronavirus if games continued to be played in sold-out or even partially full arenas. There is a heavy volume of intermingling between people of different sorts when you attend a professional sporting event, and it seems impossible to call this quarter-measure a real barrier for player safety.

At the Wells Fargo Center, every person who comes into the arena goes through some form of security, huddled together with strangers in line to make sure they're not bringing anything illegal to the game. This includes fans, media members, and WFC employees, and the latter two groups then huddle into freight elevators to head to the bowels of the arena, where workers use the pregame period setting up to serve paying customers. 

Media members go on to interact with members of team PR, interview players and coaches before the game, brush by fans and employees in the arena tunnels — some of whom will participate in on-court game ops right alongside the players — sit next to fans in the arena during the game, and then follow up with players, coaches, and team PR after the game. Even in a podium-based setting, reporters are within several feet of team personnel (rostered players included) at basically all times, after having been around hundreds of individual people in the moments leading up to press conference availability.  

An added kicker — assistant coaches, security, and various team personnel often eat not just in the same area as reporters and media members pregame, but at the same tables, all before putting their best suits on and plopping next to players on the bench.

On the team side, a sporting event is very much treated as an entertainment event. Groups of fans are escorted by team employees to the courtside area before games, standing several feet away from players warming up and passing by the same security members who remain close by the players at all times. Folks on the business side shake hands and walk with family members and girlfriends and friends of the players through a private part of the arena, which just so happens to be right next to the press conference area, and just so happens to be connected to the home locker room. Throughout the game, fans sit next to, behind, and around the players with no barriers, walls, or degrees of separation between them. Players go careening into the crowd to save loose balls, inbound balls with fans sitting inches away, and use basketballs thrown back to them by fans courtside after turnovers out of bounds are returned.

All of this is to say that we can't be too far off from closed-door games, because even if this move is just meant to be a safety measure for the players exclusively, it is not close to a full measure to protect them. You're trying to control an environment that is almost completely uncontrollable. And the more pressing question is whether it makes sense for you, the fan, to huddle into an arena with 20,000+ people whose health you have no knowledge of while this crisis is ongoing. To this writer, it comes off as a solution meant to signal real action without actually interrupting cashflow. 

On a Sixers-specific front, there are on-court questions that emerge for this team as it sits in a vulnerable state with the schedule winding down. If the league moves to a closed-door game policy, the Sixers may lose one of the only advantages they have had all season by neutering their homecourt presence. It's impossible to know how any of these players would react to playing in an empty gym for a game with actual stakes, for better or for worse.

That change certainly isn't guaranteed, and any questions regarding a move of that nature have been met with "wait and see" type responses from the league and its individual teams. And with the Sixers in the state that they're in, the advice from this writer is to "wait and see" if it's worth cramming into tighter confines than the league believes are currently safe for their players. 

The beers will be cheaper in your living room, at the very least. 

RELATED: Coronavirus cases in the Philly region | As the coronavirus spreads across the U.S., here's what you need to know

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