Countries, businesses, and schools around the world have attempted safely reopening amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, to varying degrees of success. When looking at just the United States alone, there have obviously been different tactics amongst the states in their approaches to reopening, and we know that opinions can vary greatly about the best course of action to return to some semblance of “normalcy.” For all of us, it’s been difficult to ignore the debate that has raged on when it comes to reopening businesses, states, and schools. 

Furthermore, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd on May 25, it’s also been difficult to ignore the calls for social justice and the end to the systemic racism that plagues this country.  Companies in the United States and around the world have struggled to respond meaningfully to the Black Lives Matter movement, understanding that the vast majority of their employees and clientele are expecting statements and action in support of ending discrimination and addressing police brutality.

While sports aren’t considered an essential service, they’re definitely part of American culture, and no matter your stances on COVID or BLM, nearly all of us can agree on one thing: we have missed sports as part of our daily lives since our world shut down in March.  At Congenius, we want to help companies navigate how to reopen in a way that best protects the safety of all of their stakeholders, and we strive to be a valuable resource for companies looking to appropriately address discrimination and the fight for racial justice. To do this, let’s take a look at two organizations that have been able to successfully reopen and are serving as examples for how to address the current social justice movement: the NBA and the WNBA. Both organizations serve as excellent models for how companies might reopen and address current events, as they reopened by listening to not only health officials, but also their most important stakeholders – their employees. 

Rudy Gobert/Donovan Mitchell

Amongst First NBA player to test positive with Covid 19, Utah Jazz Center, Rudy Gobert

The NBA and WNBA’s Reopening Plans

In March, the NBA and WNBA’s 2019-2020 seasons were shut down, and in June, both organizations announced a competitive format to restart the season on July 30.  The comprehensive plan was finalized by both the National Basketball Association, WNBA, and both players’ associations, and included stringent health and safety protocols that were developed in consultation with public health experts, infectious disease specialists, and government officials.   

The NBA reached an agreement with Disney to make a single-site campus at Walt Disney World Resort in Florida. The Arena, the Field House, and Visa Athletic Center at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex will be the venues for all games for the remainder of the season, which resumed on July 30 with 22 teams returning to play and with no fans in attendance. Likewise, the remainder of the WNBA’s 2019-2020 season will be played at the IMG Academy in Brandenton, Florida for each of the league’s 12 teams.  For the NBA specifically, under the competitive format for the restart, the 22 participating teams will be the eight teams in each conference with the highest current winning percentages and the six teams that are currently within six games of the eighth seed in either conference.  Players were presented with the intricately detailed plans for reopening in June, and players who agreed with the terms from those 22 teams were able resume the season while isolating in the greatest place on Earth. Furthermore, the organizations have supported sponsors by having replicas of the home team’s floor and also invited virtual fans to be a part of the game, with giant fan boards on the court, leaving no stakeholders out of the plan.

The NBA and WNBA’s plan has left little room for risk of spreading COVID – players are tested DAILY, using contact tracing, and obviously, aggressive quarantining. In addition to restricting players, staff, and others within the Disney/IMG Academy bubbles, both organization’s plans provide detailed action plans for a wide range of potential scenarios. If any player happens to test positive (and it has already happened), they are immediately placed in an isolation room for 14 days and tested regularly, and will only be allowed to leave isolation once they test negatively twice in 24 hours. Before a player is allowed back on the court, they’ll have to wait another two weeks to undergo a cardiac screening, in accordance with CDC guidelines, illustrating how seriously concerned the NBA and WNBA are about the potential health effects of COVID-19 on the heart.

So, while some players have tested positive (and others have broken the strict quarantine rules), we’ve already seen that the organizations are enforcing the rules players agreed to, and have successfully slowed the spread of the virus in their quarantine “bubbles,” and both the NBA and WNBA now sit in stark contrast to the disaster that is the MLB.

How the NBA and WNBA Are Supporting BLM 

While players have been vocal before, a significant number of players wanted to see more definitive action from the basketball leagues, hoping to use their platform (even in isolation playing to empty stadiums) and resources to help Black communities. Now more than ever, both the NBA and WNBA have taken steps to show their commitment to social justice and are supporting their players in launching a bold social justice platform as a call to action to drive impactful, measurable, and meaningful change. The message from Cathy Engelbert, Commissioner of the WNBA, is clear: “The WNBA opposes racism in all its forms, and George Floyd and Breonna Taylor are the latest names in a list of countless others who have been subject to police brutality that stems from the systemic oppression of Black Lives in America, and it is our collective responsibility to use our platforms to enact change.” 

The NBA itself worked with the National Basketball Players Association on how to address BLM on the court, and to drive a collective response from each of the team governors. Chris Paul, President of the NBA Players Association, stated, “Us players had conversations with each other, and one of the biggest things to tell you the truth was teams wanted to know where their governors stood on the situation. There’s been a lot of hard conversations that have had to be had, and I think that was huge for players, right? For players, we want to know how someone feels, especially if you’re putting their jersey on.” While social justice commitments have been tacitly supported by NBA commissioner Adam Silver and the NBA for years, the league agreed that players should be allowed to show social justice messages on the backs of their jerseys if they choose. The approved messages range from “Black Lives Matter” to “Enough” to “I Can’t Breathe” to “Say Her Name,” amongst many others. 

In the past, professional sports organizations have been like many companies that need to appeal to multiple stakeholders, and have been apprehensive in allowing their players (i.e., their employees) raise their collective voice. But now, we can see that the NBA and WNBA have obviously realized they have a significant platform and an obligation to raise awareness to social justice issues, and are taking advantage of that platform. Their efforts in empowering their players during this time should be a lesson for brands across the world who want to also take meaningful action. 

What Companies Can Learn from the NBA and WNBA

The two basketball associations’ extensive plans for a safe reopening released back in June clearly focused on the well-being of the players, coaches, officials, and staff – and that’s a lesson for all companies looking to reopen.  Protecting the health of players and staff has been the utmost priority since the league and the industry surrounding it obviously can’t exist without them, and their reopening plan was clearly designed with the guidance of public health officials. Public health officials have repeatedly said that strict quarantining, diagnostic testing, and contact tracing are necessary for a successful coronavirus response in ANY population. 

Beyond listening to health officials, the NBA and WNBA did what every company should do in the months leading up to the release of their reopening plan – they listened to their employees, the players. The road to a successful reopening obviously wasn’t simple, and some players vocalized their frustrations and concerns along the way. In May, an NBA player anonymously shared his concerns by stating, “When [Utah’s Rudy Gobert] tested positive, we just ended everything. The questions and the concerns are [about] what if another player tests positive. Are we going to take the same precautions? I think they’re optimistic that the season will resume. From a personal standpoint, I don’t think that it will be smart just to run the season back and there’s no vaccine.”  

The NBA listened to their players and other internal stakeholders, and heard their concerns for safety above all else. While the rules are strict and require personal sacrifice amongst those in the Disney quarantine bubble, it’s also been a positive for culture. Athletes have commented on the sense of community the experience has brought on for the league over all, and that’s a workplace environment worth striving for in any company. Of course, the NBA has the wealth to pull off the quarantine bubble, but the real lesson for companies looking to safely reopen in the future is obvious.  Employees matter, and their safety should be the top priority. 

In addition to listening to the players’ concerns about the risk of COVID, both professional basketball associations have allowed their employees to speak out on the injustices of systemic racism and police brutality that have rocked the nation. Instead of silencing their players, they’ve allowed them to engage in passionate, informed discourse, empowering them to use their platform to contribute to the movement. As NBPA executive director, Michele Roberts stated, “The African-American community in this country has been engaged in a conversation internally about what to do, all of us, not simply the National Basketball Association players, but all of us are. And the conversation, and I want to underscore that, that is happening between our players has been exactly that: What do we do? How do we do it? How should we do it? I can’t imagine anything healthier than that. I would have been ashamed had there not been a conversation, if the players had been talking about getting back to play and nothing else, frankly as an African-American woman, I would have been disappointed.” 

For companies struggling to respond appropriately to social injustice, look to the NBA and WNBA, and follow their lead. Listen to your employees, and open a dialogue. Employees are the most important stakeholders in any organization; they’re worth hearing.

Need Help Navigating These Unprecedented Times? Congenius Can Help

Congenius understands that the decisions made by companies when it comes to safely reopening and responding meaningfully to BLM aren’t easy. Now more than ever, consumers are looking to the brands they love and trust to see if they’re a brand worth staying loyal to. If your company needs help navigating these unprecedented times and developing a strategic plan that best reflects the values of your key stakeholders, let’s get you connected to a Genius. Email info@congenius.io or call 480-900-1850; we’re here to help.