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WHEN COVID-19 RAVAGES A GAME, NBA CAN’T BILK FANS WITH NO REFUNDS
Consequences are dangerous for commissioner Adam Silver if he takes paying customers for granted, such as those spending megabucks to see the virus-depleted Chicago Bulls and a missing LeBron James
So I want two seats in the lower bowl, 10 rows up from mid-court, to watch the Chicago Bulls host a skunkbreath team Tuesday night. As it is, I hope not to freeze my ass walking from the parking lot. With a 1990s wayback machine, it would be a treat — Jordan vs. the Bad Boys — but the only yawn-free name on the Detroit roster is Cade Cunningham, who hasn't stopped the Pistons from losing 12 straight and, in fact, probably committed career suicide when he agreed to embrace this franchise.
On the Bulls website, I am offered tickets in Section 101 at $351.21 each. Look, I'm not a kid tech billionaire trying to impress the intern he just picked up at the office Christmas party. Even with a full complement of players, in this season of renaissance after two-plus decades of post-Jordan irrelevance and woe, the experience obviously isn't worth $1,000-plus after concessions, parking and requisite souvenir holiday swag for friends and frenemies. If I weren't sitting in Los Angeles and painting a hypothetical, I might seek a lobotomy for considering such stupidity.
But here's what is so unsettling about this expensive entertainment offering: The Bulls have been pulverized by a COVID-19 outbreak that has forced 10 players — including star attractions Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan — into isolation as of Monday. They'll be fortunate, at this rate, to have eight players suit up for the Detroit game, and, as it is, the front office is signing league castoffs to 10-day contracts and all but ready to pull lunchtime rec players out of YMCAs.
And not once, as the NBA faces more coronavirus sneak attacks in Season 3 of pandemic ball, have we heard commissioner Adam Silver address the option of ticket refunds for games played with virus-ravaged rosters. I'm going to be one very pissed-off dude if I commit $702.42 for something comparable to a G League developmental scrum. But the NBA won't even postpone a game, which would allow ticket-buyers to watch a legitimate event later in the regular season, as long as a team dresses a minimum of eight bodies — no matter where they are found, even behind the bar selling beer. A game must be "cancelled and not rescheduled'' for a refund to be issued, reads the fine print of the league's ticket terms. Spelled out in bold letters: "ALL TICKET SALES ARE FINAL.''
This is consumer fraud.
When paying customers are punished for the league's inability to control the coronavirus, Silver and the owners are inviting dangerous backlash. A day rarely passes without another COVID story disrupting an NBA team, with the Charlotte Hornets listing five players in protocol last week — including star LaMelo Ball — while other franchises abruptly canceled practices. The league claims 97 percent of its players are vaccinated and 60 percent of players have received a booster, but how many have been double-jabbed? And have they sought the more effective vaccines or the less effective Johnson & Johnson? And 60 percent isn't nearly enough in a sports industry dependent on players being active so fans can expect continuity. What should scare the league is the number of breakthrough cases — players and staff members who have tested positive despite supposedly having two rounds of vaccinations. ESPN reported last month that the league knew of at least 34 cases, and that number will expand significantly after this Friday, when the league is requiring players to get a booster shot or submit to daily COVID testing.
At least 21 NBA players were in protocol Sunday. Once isolated, players are required to quarantine for 10 days unless they return two negative PCR tests in a 24-hour period. It doesn't require an interview with the epidemiological rock star, Dr. Anthony Fauci, to project the havoc that could be wreaked this season — and how it impacts those going to games and providing revenue streams for owners. How would you like to be a father of three in Sacramento, having purchased good tickets for a December game against the Lakers at Golden 1 Center, only to discover hours before tipoff that LeBron James had tested positive … in what was later ruled a false positive? Saying he was "confused'' and "angry,'' James lashed out.
"Usually when you have a positive test, they'll test you right away to make sure," he said. "There was not a follow-up test after my positive test. It was straight to isolation and you've been put into protocol. That's the part that kind of angered me. I had to figure out a way to get home from Sacramento by myself. They wouldn't allow anyone to travel with me, no security, no anything, when I traveled back from Sacramento. And then I had to put my kids in isolation for the time being, the people in my household in isolation for the time being, so it was just a big-time inconvenience. That was the anger part."
No one is spilling tears for LeBron. But what about the fans who felt cheated and gypped? The season isn't two months' old — and if we've already experienced a Bulls outbreak and a LeBron screwup, what other COVID chaos awaits the league? Like the NHL, which is dealing with postponements and team shutdowns, the NBA is an indoor enterprise. Thus, close contacts beneath roofs in intimate settings make it more vulnerable to breakthrough infections than the NFL, which plays mostly in outdoor environments.
The first question about the Bulls is obvious: Are they being more reckless about protocols than other teams? Actually, the medical staff returned to daily testing after Coby White's positive test on Dec. 1, which led to a flurry of teammates entering health and safety protocols. It's a tough turn for an exciting team poised to contend in the Eastern Conference, but, minus LaVine and DeRozan, they can't compete. In order to post up and square up, they must mask up.
"We’ve got a lot of guys sitting home with no symptoms right now,” coach Billy Donovan said. "That’s obviously a good thing, too, because I think when guys have gone through a little difficulty of getting really, really sick, it’s really made it a lot harder for them coming back. So we do have some guys that have felt under the weather, and we have some guys that have very, very mild symptoms and some guys who just don’t have any.”
Trying to spin an outbreak into a positive is fool's territory. And trying to play doctor is less wise. Star big man Nikola Vucevic, who was in COVID-19 isolation last month, tweeted this on Sunday: "Well at least we'll have herd immunity for the rest of the season.''
Would someone introduce Vucevic to the Omicron variant?
The NBA should thank the gods for the magical Steph Curry, who has dominated conversations as he chases Ray Allen's all-time three-point record and eyes another championship. But one only must look to Brooklyn to see everything that's wrong. Imagine a Nets fan who bought season tickets thinking Kyrie Irving would join Kevin Durant and James Harden in an all-time triumvirate. Think the fan doesn't want some of his money back as Irving continues his anti-vaxxer crusade, threatening to sit out the season in defiance of New York City's vaccine mandates?
And there was Durant, firing obscenities toward a fan in Atlanta who simply had told him to "stop crying.'' This followed episodes in which James ordered security to eject two fans in Indiana and Washington's Kyle Kuzma flipped an obscene gesture at a fan.
To take the paying customers for granted — with America in continued upheaval, trying to keep its children safe and educated, trying to avoid smash-and-grab robberies, trying to survive tornadoes and other natural disasters, trying to stay employed and alive, just trying to figure out whether a movie is on demand or only in theaters — well, it isn't smart business for the best commissioner in sports.
Unless, he isn't.
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.