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League Faces Conflict Over Testing

As more players end up in protocols, team trainers and GMs are asking about more testing.

Washington Wizards v Denver Nuggets Photo by C. Morgan Engel/Getty Images

As NBA players enter protocols for the omicron variant of COVID-19, frustrations around the league have come to the fore, according to Adrian Wojnarowski and Baxter Holmes in a piece for ESPN Insider. Testing — or the lack thereof — has become a central conflict between teams, the league, and the players’ association, to the point that teams are concerned about what other teams may or may not be doing. The Chicago Bulls, who have been hit hard by coronavirus, wondered if perhaps other teams were not testnig enough.

On a weekly league medical call on Dec. 14, one team health official said the Bulls expressed frustration that they had a number of asymptomatic player cases, with each required to be sidelined for 10 days. Given the urgency of their situation, the Bulls were testing everyone, but they asked, why wasn’t every other team doing the same?

Head trainers had asked for more testing.

“At the start of the year, we asked the league if they would consider testing more frequently,” said one veteran head athletic trainer. “They said no. Here we are.”

Said one GM: “In fairness to the league, not testing enabled us to make it this far in many ways.”

Teams without cases, such as the Portland Trail Blazers, are becoming more rare. The team is fully vaccinated and has yet to have a player enter protocols. Other teams have not been so lucky.

There’s also a sense of resignation on teams as players who are fully vaccinated, including booster shots, are still facing infections. “We are pretty much defenseless now,” one Western Conference head athletic trainer recently told ESPN, “not against getting sick but against transmission and contraction.”

There is a general concern that the financial well-being of the league is coming before player safety in the face of omicron landing before Christmas.

NBA senior vice president David Weiss, who has run the NBA’s player health programs since 2012, was on the call, but Weiss is a lawyer by trade. His presence, and the lack of a medical expert, drove home to some a sentiment that the economic gravity of the moment is running parallel to medical concerns. A cynical view, perhaps, but for all the league’s emphasis on player health and safety, there is also the glaring reality, as many team executives around the NBA note, that the league has hemorrhaged money the past two seasons and faces more losses if it has to suspend this season.

Wojnarowski and Holmes share an important tidbit regarding player vaccination: booster shots are lagging across the league.

But the circumstances this winter are different. While nearly all players are vaccinated, team health officials note that almost one-third of players received the Johnson & Johnson single-shot dose, which offers the lowest level of protection compared to Pfizer and Moderna. There are concerns about waning immunity; only about 65% of eligible players have received booster shots, roughly 275 total players, sources say.

You can read the entire piece here (subscription required).