Crisis Off The Court: The Not-So-Hidden Struggles of the NBA’s COVID-19 Bubbles

Crisis Off The Court: The Not-So-Hidden Struggles of the NBA’s COVID-19 Bubbles

Imagine being locked in your office building for several weeks. You have only virtual screens to see your parents, partner, children, or even much of the outside world beyond the building’s walls. Your only other means of connection are your colleagues, which, no matter how much you like them, can still get tedious after a while. Aside from their company, you really have nothing else to do with your time besides your job. It becomes only a matter of time before the confinement is bound to have a negative impact on your mental health. 

While it might be difficult to commiserate on the trials of a professional athlete with a glamorous lifestyle and large paycheck, isolation challenges were very real for NBA players as they were forced to bubble this year for the remainder of the 2019-2020 season. Every professional sports league wrestled with major decisions about how to keep their players, fans, and employees safe. The NBA opted to strictly confine their players so that they would not be exposed to COVID-19, an outside threat that could compromise workplace health and safety. After the initial outbreaks in the Spring cancelled all games, players were forced to isolate upon their return to work this Summer, and then were only able to have family members rejoin them in mid-September. 

To its credit, the NBA took measures to preserve players’ mental health and well-being wherever possible. Teams were quarantined at Walt Disney World, traditionally dubbed ‘the happiest place on Earth,’ and had everything from a golf course to a barbershop to a fishing lake at their disposal. Yet the reality remained unchanged – players were effectively ‘trapped at the office,’ and it got to them. The league and the players’ association anticipated that there would be issues, and mandated the availability of mental health support, but that didn’t mean that players still did not struggle. 

Some players were honestly vocal about their mental health struggles. In an interview after a crucial Game 5 win, when asked about his poor performance in the three previous playoff games, LA Clippers forward Paul George replied, “I had anxiety. A little bit of depression. Us being locked in here, I just wasn’t there. I just checked out.” The admission of vulnerability was particularly brave considering that professional athletes have been traditionally expected to project iron will and a steely resolve. George credited conversations with his coach, teammates, and sessions with a psychiatrist for helping to lift his mood. 

Yet NBA players have not had an easy year from the start. In January they mourned the loss of Kobe Bryant, a legend of the game, and friend and idol to many of the league’s younger players. Through the Summer they saw footage of horrific police shootings of unarmed black Americans and the ensuing protests that followed, all with limited access to their public platforms. These events led to a slow build, and by the time the basketball season restarted in June, many players were already mentally and emotionally struggling. 

The reality is that mental health struggles do not need to start at the workplace in order to impact the workplace. Loneliness, isolation, and trauma all take a significant toll on a person’s wellbeing, and can readily lead to anxiety or depression as seen in some of these players. While millions of Canadians are battling these feelings, that fact does not minimize your own personal struggles, which may be hitting you harder than they are your friends or colleagues. Know yourself, listen to your body, and be sure to seek help when you need it.

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