Column: NBA shouldn’t be jumping to front of the line for COVID-19 testing

Lakers star Anthony Davis plays against the Boston Celtics on Feb. 23 at Staples Center.
Lakers star Anthony Davis plays against the Boston Celtics on Feb. 23 at Staples Center. NBA players are considered possible “super spreaders” of the coronavirus because of their frequent travel and proximity to fans.
(Katelyn Mulcahy / Getty Images)

President Trump has signed into law a coronavirus relief package that, among other things, will provide free testing for COVID-19 as the number of U.S. cases passes 10,000, including at least two members of Congress. The package provides much-needed relief for the nearly 30 million Americans living without health insurance. It also offers relief for the estimated 40% of Americans who, according to the Federal Reserve, would have difficulties covering a $400 emergency expense.

Hell, it’s relief to anyone who has a fever but is afraid to miss work because they need the money.

In short, this crisis has placed an unflattering spotlight on the nation’s wealth gap. The need for this relief package is one example.

The crosshairs in which the NBA finds itself is another.


“We’ve been following the recommendations of public health officials,” Commissioner Adam Silver said on ESPN on Wednesday night. That interview came on the heels of a public groundswell of emotions including incredulity and outrage.

Earlier Wednesday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted that “an entire NBA team should NOT get tested for COVID-19 while there are critically ill patients waiting to be tested … tests should not be for the wealthy but for the sick.” De Blasio was referring specifically to the Brooklyn Nets, but the troubling optics go back a full week to the catalyst for what will be the longest sports shutdown since World War II.

On March 11, after Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19 before the start of Utah’s game against the Oklahoma City Thunder, 58 people connected to the team were able to get tested within 24 hours. This at a time in which tests were more scarce than toilet paper. The Toronto Raptors — the last Utah opponent before that night — were able to get everyone connected to the team checked out quickly as well. An Oklahoma City health department spokesperson said that city officials made the decision to test the Jazz and that the team did not request preferential treatment, a point Silver reiterated. An unidentified Toronto health official told USA Today that the Raptors did not receive special treatment, either.


Meanwhile, ordinary New Yorkers watched the Nets, who revealed Tuesday that four players tested positive, gain speedy access to tests. Here in our quarantined backyard, the Lakers — the last team to face the Nets — conducted exams at their El Segundo practice facility Wednesday. The results are expected Friday.

A look at how sports leagues, including the NFL, MLB, MLS, NBA and NHL, are responding to the coronavirus outbreak.

As of this writing, 14 members of NBA organizations have tested positive during the outbreak. To quote De Blasio, we wish them all a speedy recovery.

But if I’m allowed to keep it real for a minute: All of this “non-preferential” testing for millionaires and their associates against the backdrop of a national testing shortfall for ordinary citizens looks foul and smells even worse.

It’s not that Silver doesn’t care about regular folks. His decisive action to suspend the NBA season sparked a movement that doubtlessly saved regular folks’ lives. And kudos to all the athletes and leagues that have stepped up financially to help the arena workers and other game-day employees who depend on a full sports schedule to put food on the table. But in the midst of this public health crisis, it’s hard to watch NBA teams, and the privileged at large, gain access to otherwise elusive tests and not wonder if the rest of us are minor characters in a dystopian movie.

Philadelphia 76ers v Los Angeles Lakers
The Los Angeles Lakers bench reacts to a play against the Philadelphia 76ers on March 3 at Staples Center. Most of the team was tested for the coronavirus Wednesday.
(Katelyn Mulcahy / Getty Images)

I don’t blame the players, teams and leagues for these optics. They have access to resources, like team physicians, and it would be irresponsible not to use them. Truth be told, who among us would not do the same if in their high tops?

But while the Lakers were getting their nostrils swabbed, a hospital in New York had to turn away first responders who arrived in a parking lot hoping to get tested. The service was scheduled between 7 a.m. and 2 p.m., but the hospital ran out of tests by noon. Masks are being reused by nurses in Southern California because hospitals don’t have enough to keep pace with incoming patients.


The first reported death connected to coronavirus in L.A. County involved a husband and wife who had returned to the States after a dream trip abroad. The wife fell ill and would not wake up. The husband performed CPR trying to revive her. Instead of being administered a test after his wife’s passing, he was told to self-quarantine because he didn’t show symptoms.

Also, there was a shortage of tests.

A look at athletes, coaches, and others in the sports world who have tested positive of the coronavirus.

The Oklahoma City health department spokesperson explained that the Jazz were tested quickly because they are considered “super spreaders” because of their frequent travel and proximity to fans. We are to believe the fact that they are “superstars” had no impact on the decision-making process. Maybe if the wealthiest among us didn’t hold nearly as much wealth as the middle and upper-middle classes combined, it would be easier to believe.

While I understand the explanation of Silver, who says he has not been tested, it pales before the frustration of physicians around the country who are having their requests to test patients rejected despite meeting Centers for Disease Control and Prevention testing criteria. Considering the lag of available tests at the onset of this pandemic, the number of Americans diagnosed with coronavirus will likely increase precipitously as more tests become available. This will undoubtedly increase the need for social distancing and extend the postponement of normalcy.

Like concerts. Bars. The games we love.

However, one aspect of what we call normal has been inoculated against the virus: the gap between the haves and the have-nots. When it comes to privilege and income inequality, everything seems to be humming right along as it always has.

Go beyond the scoreboard

Get the latest on L.A.'s teams in the daily Sports Report newsletter.

You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.