The Bubble Asterisk?
The National Basketball Association’s (NBA) and National Hockey League’s (NHL) decision to finish their seasons in the bubble format thrilled sports fans after four long months without any sporting events. As the NBA players arrived in Orlando and NHL players arrived in Edmonton and Toronto, many knew that the coming weeks would present unprecedented challenges. Considering the deviations from the regular proceedings and the lack of live fans, some people have claimed that this year's NHL and NBA champions should be recorded with an asterisk to separate them from the champions of the past who won under normal playoff conditions, marking their achievement as lesser, a fluke, even. However, rather than an asterisk discrediting this year’s champions, it should be an exclamation point signifying the added mental fortitude and intensity required to win the NBA Championship and Stanley Cup in 2020.
The mental strain that these athletes face playing in their leagues’ bubbles is immense. Especially for older players who have families, performing in a high pressure situation can be particularly difficult. Boston Bruins’ goaltender Tukka Rask left his team and the NHL bubble in Toronto prior to game three against the Carolina Hurricanes in the first round, telling his team and the media that he simply needed to be with his family due to an emergency he felt compelled to return for. While Rask’s action was highly publicized and criticized due to his prominence as the Bruins’ starting goaltender, his views on the challenges of being in a bubble are shared by others in the league and among NBA players, as voiced by Jaylen Brown. The Boston Celtics’ small forward said that fans should not be fooled by “the images of pool tables and swimming pools and all this other stuff,” and that “it's tough being [in the bubble]. Being away from my family. Being isolated from the rest of our society.” Performing at the highest level, all while maintaining a positive mental health in an isolated environment demands players focus themselves amid an uneasy situation.
The lack of fans in the bubble also presents a formidable challenge to these players. In a media interview following his announcement to leave his team, Rask said, “It doesn’t really feel like playoff hockey out there. There are no fans, so it’s kind of like an exhibition game…[normally,] the fans are cheering for and against you, it really creates a buzz for the series.” While professional athletes like to pride themselves on their ability to tune out distractions from the fans, many are missing the added motivation of a vibrant atmosphere. Even though the NBA and NHL pump crowd noise and music through the loudspeakers in the arena between whistles and when a goal is scored or shot is made, it is hardly the same as having avid fans physically present.
On top of the competitive intensity players normally face in the playoffs, the restrictions on physical movement and social isolation of the bubble format makes competing day after day all the more challenging for these athletes, as they cannot go about the game day routines that they have practiced for multiple seasons. This year’s Stanley Cup Champion in the NHL and NBA Champion do not deserve to have their titles caveated just because these playoffs are a different, somehow “less valid” format than they were prior to Covid-19. If anything, these championship teams deserve additional praise for stepping up their game in such unprecedented circumstances.