It’s Christmas morning, and an athletic trainer for a Western Conference NBA team is leaving his wife and children to go into work. Once he arrives at the team’s practice facility, the trainer quickly begins checking things off his to-do list. He sifts through the usual set of new emails from the league office that update teams on changes to the health and safety protocols, then helps communicate those updates to the rest of the organization and anyone else who has to come into the facility or travels with the team. After that, he makes sure all of the site’s COVID-19 testing stations are up and running, and heads over to the room where the main daily testing happens—a large room that had to be quickly converted after the league decided in early November that it would start the 2020-21 season on December 22.
The trainer has had to go through a similar process every morning since the season began, but despite his efforts to establish a routine, the work remains as taxing as ever. Each day brings a new challenge, a new protocol, a new issue. In the middle of January, the NBA moved to test its players and coaches for COVID twice a day, rather than the once-a-day policy that had been in effect. For the trainer, that meant he and the rest of the training staff had to start arriving at the facility around 5 a.m. on some days and then return between 8 p.m. and midnight to go through the process again. A trainer’s typical duties involve everything from setting up X-rays to stretching a player’s calf; now some are tasked with establishing testing schedules, keeping track of the samples, and contact tracing. An already rigorous job has become all-consuming.
“To be perfectly honest, most of us have worked since fall nonstop,” said the trainer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he’s not sanctioned to talk to the media. “This is something we’ve never done before. We are the first and last line of defense. Our priorities have shifted, first and foremost, to make sure all the protocols are satisfied before we move on to the next thing.”
The NBA is a 30-team, large-scale operation that takes the work of countless behind-the-scenes individuals to function smoothly. But during a season that had little lead time and is happening while the coronavirus is still plaguing the country, the heavy burden of following the league’s health and safety protocols has often fallen on people who already had other roles within teams. Trainers and members of front offices have had to adapt, be creative, and commit to an unforeseen level of work that has included increased communication with the league office and within teams, a fast-tracked education on testing protocols, and the enforcement of regulations in order to keep the ship afloat. For some, this added responsibility hasn’t just flipped their workplace routine upside down. It’s given them another full-time job.
I spoke to trainers and front-office members from several different teams for this story, and among them, there is a unanimous understanding that the extra work has become an essential part of the job—that the league and their teams depend on them to keep the season going as safely as possible. And yet, this double duty has not only taken away from their typical responsibilities, but eliminated any kind of work-life balance and placed them under an abnormal amount of extra stress.
“The fatigue is pretty high,” the Western Conference trainer said about a quarter of the way into the season. “And that will cause things to suffer, like the quality of work. Not because [people are] bad at their jobs, just like literally, we are human beings and we are getting tired. This is across the league, across athletic training staffs. This is exhausting.”
Timberwolves president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas has taken to describing the challenges of this season as “not anyone’s fault, but everyone’s problem.” In the past few months, Rosas has seen his own role shift away from basketball and more toward managerial duties, like keeping track of how the virus is affecting the Wolves’ players and staff. He believes all parties involved, including the league, are doing the best they can with an unprecedented situation that changes by the day.
“The reality of it is, we don’t have control,” Rosas said in a phone interview last week. “It’s not even week-to-week or day-to-day, we’re literally hour-to-hour, and our protocol, our operations of anything that we do—whether it’s travel, practice, game prep, development—like everything is ever-changing.”
Most of the people I spoke with said that despite frustrations, they understand the league is figuring things out on the fly, much like the teams themselves. But some of those who have been tasked with handling the brunt of the protocol management and enforcement said the work has been difficult, especially when it’s required them to affirm those guidelines to players. Trainers and staffers say they have taken on a “don’t kill the messenger” approach with players. They don’t want to pester them with reminders to pull up their masks or follow social distancing guidelines, but when they do, they let them know that the league mandates have to be followed to keep the season going—especially given that there have been more than 20 games postponed this season due to positive tests and contact tracing.
One member of a front office, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said they’re “disenchanted” with the league office and how it’s handled things to this point. “They shouldn’t have rushed the season,” they said, “and used that time to come up with more efficient and practical protocols instead of sending us a new complicated memo every day and expect us to be able to drop everything and implement it immediately. Or hire experts and assign them to teams to do this instead of expecting a basketball person who has no background in this to understand and implement it all while also still doing their original job.”
Asked for comment, an NBA spokesperson provided the following statement: “We recognize and appreciate the sacrifices that everyone connected to our game has made this season. We are in frequent and regular contact with our teams as we all work together to continue to safely play amid the ever-evolving and ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.”
Prior to the start of the season, the NBA had every team designate a staff member as a protocol compliance officer. The league left it up to each team to decide who would take on that role. For many teams, that job has landed in the hands of head athletic trainers, but each team has needed multiple staff members to manage all the protocols, testing, and paperwork outlined in the 158-page document the league sent out before the season. The trickle-down effect has not been kind, especially for teams whose medical staffs are smaller. And as the amount of protocols and regulations has grown since the season tipped off, staffers say things have become overwhelming.
“The whole system rests on these couple of people,” said another front-office staffer, who believes the league should have taken a two-week break in January when there were 12 games postponed in a seven-day span. “The NBA league office should give out like a stimulus check at the end of this to the four or five people at every team who are the most in the weeds on all this stuff. … I think it takes up your whole life, legitimately.”
That staffer, who works for a Western Conference team, has been part of his team’s protocol management group since before the season began, and he estimates the league has sent out more than 70 memos so far, each detailing new behaviors and restrictions that teams must implement right away. Once an email hits the inbox of the protocol compliance officers, the new regulations (like the latest mandate that players must wear KN95 or KF94 masks) have to be communicated to fellow staff members, coaches, players, and even arena workers—some of whom have been caught off guard by changes on game days. These officers then have to notify the league that the memo was communicated to the players. The efficacy of the protocols depends on the willingness of every person to follow them, and often the frustration is not that those people won’t, but that even if they do, it doesn’t guarantee there will be no positive tests.
Those interviewed for this story acknowledge that the league’s protocols are backed by medical professionals, and that, aside from not playing games at all, this is the only possible way to move forward. But given the stakes, the pressure is unavoidable.
“You can’t miss a single body. If you make one mistake, you can most likely cost us the game and shut us down for a period of time,” the aforementioned Western Conference trainer said. “That’s a lot of pressure that’s causing a lot of us to lose sleep, choose work over our families, and not spend as much time with them.”
Multiple trainers said this new routine has all but erased their home life and time spent with their families. During a normal season, when the team is at home, trainers and staffers can usually see their families every day. Now, though, with testing being done both early in the morning and late at night, they consider themselves lucky if they catch them before heading to work or upon returning home. The hours spent at teams’ facilities have gotten longer, and sleep cycles have gotten shorter. As the Western Conference trainer pointed out, he’s seen some fellow staffers resort to taking short naps in their offices during the day to catch some rest before quickly getting back to work. After all, everything is time-sensitive.
The behind-the-scenes work is endless. Not only do these medical trainers have to handle and track testing and make sure things like spacing on the benches is compliant with league regulations, but they also have to find time to do their regular jobs: providing one-on-one care for players who are nursing injuries, scheduling medical checkups or surgeries, and ensuring they have all the necessary equipment.
Communication and efficiency have become as integral as ever. And staffers learned quickly that no detail about the protocols was too small. “It snowballs. The league says A, somebody has to do B, and then as it continues to roll downhill, we’ve got all the extra things we have to do to comply,” the Western Conference trainer said. It’s all created a pressurized environment where, even though the work is being done to allow for basketball, basketball itself has become secondary. And the usual joy that comes with the game has largely been stifled.
Trainers have tried to put their heads down and keep working, searching for reprieve in the small moments of quiet and levity in the midst of the pressure. As the Western Conference trainer pointed out, the emoji and meme proficiency among the staff has increased dramatically when communicating. Inside jokes and laughs have helped diffuse the stress from time to time and give the staff a sense of solidarity.
But bigger reprieves or more concrete solutions are hard to come by. Some front-office members believe that an extra body, someone tasked to specifically handle COVID-19 issues, would have helped some of the aforementioned issues. But in the same breath they’ll acknowledge the extra risk of adding another person into the mix who could potentially contract the virus.
Trainers who are in the thick of things see the value of having an extra helping hand, but say that training a new individual to fit into their workflow at this point would not be realistic. And even if a new individual was added and brought up to speed, trainers I spoke to say that they would undoubtedly still want to be part of the process, given that their job first and foremost is the players’ care.
For some staffs, the adaptation process has been a bit easier. The Timberwolves, for example, already employ Dr. Robby Sikka—one of the few medical doctors on staff in the league. Sikka is not only the team’s VP of basketball performance and technology, he’s also behind the SalivaDirect, a Yale project that’s partnered with the league and the players’ union to help facilitate easier, cheaper COVID testing. Sikka has worked in tandem with Wolves trainer Greg Farnham and the NBA’s senior vice president of player matters David Weiss to make the process as seamless as possible.
“There’s so much detail, the different layers of protocol, the different exposure points, you need somebody that’s really an expert in that area to not only understand it, but to be able to apply it to your organization,” Rosas said. “It’s a little bit unnatural. The routines have been dramatically changed. Everything has been altered in effect by new protocols that are necessary, to be fair.”
And while the trainers interviewed say that the protocols haven’t impacted the relationship or trust between them and the players, it’s certainly affected their demeanors at work. A lot of the fun is gone—and it seems that way for some of the players, too. A few staffers, including Rosas, have expressed concern about what this season and its stringent protocols are doing to players’ and staffers’ mental health.
“It feels like every two weeks, we get a fresh batch of updates, which means we need to change everything,” the front-office staffer with a Western Conference team said. “And then everyone gets used to it over the next like 10 days, and it gets a little easier. And then the league flips it again.”
Some are hopeful that things are trending in the right direction—that the league has pushed through the worst of it, and that some semblance of normalcy is on the horizon. Others are less optimistic. The front-office staffer with a Western Conference team said the NBA’s decision to continue on with an All-Star Game is “sickening” and will just create even more work and stress for those who will have to keep track of where players are going and whom they’re interacting with. And when it comes to the vaccine, one trainer pointed out that some players have already requested more information about the possible vaccine rollout and any possible side effects that could affect their immediate ability to play. The NBA is reportedly holding meetings with players to address those concerns, but for those behind the scenes, they have no choice but to approach each day in a vacuum, just trying to make it through the daily challenges.
“If I hear ‘contact tracing’ spoken out loud one more time, I think something’s gonna burst into flames,” the Western Conference trainer said. “Our lives are our jobs right now, and we’re all feeling it.”
An earlier version of this post stated that David Weiss was the senior vice president of the Minnesota Timberwolves. He is the NBA’s senior vice president of player matters.