What the USA can learn from the NBA

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver was one of the first leaders of a major organization to shut everything down on the evening of March 11th. Most of the rest of the country followed suit.

Utah Jazz Center Rudy Gobert went from making a mockery of COVID-19 to testing positive for it two days later, and then his teammate tested positive too, and then a player from a team that they played, and then several more players from several other teams. It is interesting now to read this two tweet thread that I shared on March 17th where I used the number of NBA players who had tested positive at that time to show why the 5,000 or so cases we had confirmed in the USA at that point was definitively off by at least a zero or two. I wrote...

"450 players in NBA, 7 now tested positive. Just over 1.5% of the league, which seems to be testing as quickly and broadly as we would have hoped our nation could. If 1.5% of US has coronavirus that means over 5 million people. Doubt that is the case but... It seems insane that we have only confirmed 5K thus far. I am glad that organizations and govs took the social distancing measures they did as early as they did in terms of the confirmed case count. True case count must be 10x or more likely closer to 100x or more (50K-500K+)..."

Because the NBA acted relatively early, a reasonably low percentage of all players in the NBA got the virus. Had they acted much later, the virus would have spread exponentially and wreaked much more havoc around the league.

The NBA also set the example in terms of mass testing. Granted, it is much easier for them to do than for a whole country, and one can question how they got access to so many tests and accuse them of taking tests from the rest of the population if they want, but that is a separate argument that I am not interested in addressing. Regardless of that raiseable controversy, the fact of the matter is that the NBA successfully executed testing broadly, quickly, and early, and the USA as a country is still working on following its lead in that regard. Still, we are hardly out of the gates in relative terms with only 0.63% of the population tested and about 19% of them or 0.12% of the population having tested positive. Through proactive testing, the NBA learned quickly that most of its players with the virus were almost, if not totally, asymptomatic. I believe the USA and the world will eventually come to the same conclusion as testing eventually catches up to the prevalence of the virus, but we still have a ways to go.

Similar to closures, case counts, and testing, I believe the NBA will also lead the country in figuring out how to re-open itself to some degree in a way that is creative and increasingly effective as it innovates and adapts in ways which no one would have ever considered as recently as just a few months ago. The NBA will change the way it works for the foreseeable future, and then the USA will change the way it works for the foreseeable future too.

Beyond closures, case counts, testing, and re-opening, there is also the economic fallout that will become apparent in parallel to the re-opening efforts, not in terms of markets (although that too), but in terms of actual people struggling. The Portland Trail Blazers' CJ McCollum just estimated that a third of the NBA lives paycheck to paycheck. A MarketWatch article from January suggests that up to 75% of Americans might too, and their paychecks on average are about 80 times smaller than the median NBA player's. Regardless of the exact figure, which is difficult to know for sure, here is something that I do know. In April, more Americans will collect $0 in total income than last month (excluding severance & unemployment benefits), and likely more than in any previous month since 1942 (9.9%). For those like me who are not the sharpest with history and dates, 1942 was the year of Pearl Harbor which precipitated the USA's entry into World War II about a decade removed from the beginning of the Great Depression. Unfortunately, May will be worse than April. June, I presume, will be worse than May. Most are predicting that the USA will see the worst of the virus, or the worst of this initial wave at least, at some point this month, but I do not know when we will see the worst of unemployment in America. I do not think it will be very soon, but probably sometime this year. Worst of all, the unemployment rate is poised to take many times longer to fall than it will to have risen, and that could mean years of potential recovery.

As an aside, The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics only started measuring the unemployment rate in 1929 when the market crashed to begin The Great Depression. I would not be surprised if some other rate begins to be measured to track our emergence back from the bottom this time around. We may now have better solutions to help people who cannot afford the essentials to get them compared with nearly a century ago when the single best way to help people recover was to get them jobs.

For all of the aforementioned reasons and more, I believe that the USA would be wise to pay some attention to the NBA, how it continues to be effected by the virus, and how it continues to respond to it. Of course, running a country or even a state is many degrees of magnitude more complex, at a scale that is many degrees of magnitude larger. That said, its leader has been ahead of the curve, both literally and figuratively, and I believe some helpful themes, realities, and/or strategies may be discovered in paying attention to how the situation with the NBA continues to unfold. In many ways, what happens with the NBA may be continue to be predictive of what happens with the USA.

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