Eric Walden: NBA teams getting cuts in line for COVID-19 testing is not a good look

A medical worker tests a person for the coronavirus at a drive-through facility primarily for first responders and medical personnel in San Antonio, Tuesday, March 17, 2020. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said, "This is not a time to panic. It's not as if we have never been through this before. We've been through this many, many times." (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

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Rudy Gobert. Donovan Mitchell. Christian Wood. Kevin Durant. Marcus Smart. Three other unnamed Nets. Two Lakers. One member of the Nuggets organization. Three from the 76ers. As of Saturday morning, those 14 individuals represented the comprehensive list of NBA personnel known to have tested positive for COVID-19.

About one-third of the league’s teams have publicly acknowledged undergoing testing for coronavirus. How many more have been or will be tested, but will strategically remain quiet about it now that public outrage is growing in response to their disproportionate access to such tests?

The league and its teams are circling the wagons in an attempt to fend off accusations they are the beneficiaries of favoritism, capitalizing upon a rigged system. Such arguments are in vain, of course, because the allegations are true: NBA teams are very much outliers.

Upon the news breaking of Gobert’s positive test in Oklahoma City, the Utah Jazz’s 58-person traveling party — players, coaches, trainers, broadcasters, media — were all tested. In their defense, it was apparently not their idea to deplete Oklahoma’s then-available supply of COVID-19 tests to a mere 250 remaining.

“The Utah Jazz did not ask to be tested,” commissioner Adam Silver told ESPN on Wednesday. “The Oklahoma public health official there on the spot not only required that they be tested, but they weren’t allowed to leave their locker room.”

Fair enough — the Jazz didn’t demand special treatment, they had it forced upon them. Not every other team tested can say the same. Both the Thunder and the Nets have made it a point to mention their tests were conducted through private labs, and therefore did not impact public resources. Still, I’m not too certain a defense of, “Don’t worry — I didn’t steal your test; I’m rich and famous and have access to testing that’s not even available to you” will play all that well.

Do you have access to the testing being done at New Jersey-based Quest Diagnostics or North Carolina-based LabCorp? Or any other private lab? I sure don’t. All the way back on March 12, the Iowa Department of Public Health told the Des Moines Register their supplies had dwindled so badly, they were contracting with Quest, LabCorp, even Utah-based ARUP to process their tests. A Quest spokesperson, meanwhile, told the Register, “We expect to be able to perform tens of thousands of tests a week within the next six weeks.” They told the New York Times that they provided “an exceedingly small percentage of our overall collection kits to a small number of sports teams.”

The Thunder, like the Jazz, perhaps can be given a pass. They were, after all, in close proximity with the teammates of the first NBA player to test positive — one of whom became the second to test positive. In that moment, when the scope of this pandemic had yet to fully unfold, it probably seemed like the correct course of action.

But what of the Nets? Or the Lakers? The teams getting tested a week or more later, long after being advised to not only socially distance, but to self-quarantine?

That’s what New York City mayor Bill de Blasio wondered: “We wish them a speedy recovery. But, with all due respect, 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.”

The Nets responded: “If we had waited for players to exhibit symptoms, they might have continued to pose a risk to their family, friends and the public. ... We believe it is not only the right thing to do for our players and their families, it is the responsible thing to do from a medical and epidemiological standpoint.”

That logic was sufficiently dubious — if millions of symptomatic members of the public are denied tests until they require hospitalization, why are asymptomatic athletes exceptions? — that a Nets spokesperson subsequently claimed testing took place after the team “noticed that several of our players and staff had symptoms.”

Meanwhile, Silver and NBA Players Association counterpart Michele Roberts have both played the “I’m sorry we have tests and you don’t, but the latter is not our fault” card:

"It’s unfortunate we’re at this position as a society where it’s triage when it comes to testing. And so the fundamental issue is obviously there are insufficient tests,” Silver said.

“The problem that more of us can’t get the tests … in my view, rests at the foot of the federal government. They were responsible for making sure we were protected in that regard, and I think they failed,” Roberts added to ESPN. “… I think it would have been irresponsible for the teams not to test their players and staffers because people ... have the right to know if they’ve been exposed.”

That last bit is particularly galling. Of course people want and deserve to know if they’ve been exposed; that makes it all the more arrogant to flaunt that such knowledge is readily available to the dozens of NBA employees involved in a particular game, but not the thousands of fans who attended it. Framing the testing of asymptomatic players as some sort of public service is cringeworthy spin.

The United States has been short-handed on COVID-19 tests from the outset. First, because the Centers for Disease Control declined to use the tests developed earlier by other stricken nations. Then, the first CDC-developed test had to be recalled, on account of post-distribution quality control checks revealing they could not distinguish between COVID-19 and water. Now, the reagent chemical used in the standard “RT-polymerase chain reaction” test is in short supply.

One team at least seems to have a firm grasp of how this haves-and-have-nots dynamic would play out. In a Tuesday conference call, Warriors president Bob Myers said no one from the team had received a COVID-19 test, and that no one would unless they show symptoms: “We’ve been told that the testing is in short supply. We’re not better than anybody, not worse. Just a basketball team.”

If this all seems like pretty straightforward condemnation, there is at least room for some ambivalence.

Quite simply, NBA teams have better access to medical resources than the rest of us. The Lakers have a sponsorship deal with the UCLA Medical Center, the Cavaliers with the Cleveland Clinic, the Timberwolves with the Mayo Clinic. And so on. Silver sent a memo to teams on March 7 instructing them to identify local facilities for testing.

So here’s what it comes down to: If you did have access to a test, if you were offered one, even if you weren’t showing symptoms, would you take it?

“I see both sides. But I’ma speak on my behalf. The company that we work for, the team that we play for, has access to them; so if it benefits us to get the test, I’ma get the test,” Lakers guard Quinn Cook said on Yahoo reporter Chris Haynes’ podcast. “It’s unfortunate for people in society who have symptoms and can’t get access to the test. … Our teams, our organizations can get access to them, so why not?”

Put yourself in his shoes — wouldn’t you want to know? Isn’t the point to test as many people as possible?

I am torn. After Gobert’s diagnosis, several of my media colleagues, including one of my coworkers, were among those 58 tested in Oklahoma City. Because I was not on that trip, I was not. But because I’d been in contact with Gobert at that previous Monday’s shootaround, and in contact with Gobert and Mitchell at that Monday night game, and in contact with both of them during the previous week’s road trip, I sure as hell looked into whether or not I could get one.

Knowing what I do now, after nearly two weeks in self-quarantine and nary a symptom of COVID-19 shown, I’d like to think I would now benevolently decline the offer of a test so long as they remain in such short supply. And yet, knowing that many of those aforementioned NBA players who’ve tested positive have revealed that they too are without symptoms … well, it’s not so easy to be definitive about anything anymore, is it?