Villanova Sports Law Blog
The Current Atmosphere of COVID-19
By Lili Flores
Earlier this week, it was unknown that in a few short days, every major sports game or event would be canceled or postponed. Unfortunately, this is now the reality. Similar to other industries, professional sports leagues have reacted to the outbreak of coronavirus (also known as COVID-19), across the world and swiftly took action to reduce the effects of the virus amongst players and the larger public, namely by canceling or postponing all games and seasons. Throughout the week coverage and fears surrounding the COVID-19 continue to skyrocket, with updates coming by the minute. While the immediate effect of suspending play will be saddening for fans who were planning to attend games, the economic and legal ripple effects may loom large. Specifically, will these changes generate potential legal battles and affect contractual obligations?
Earlier this week, the NBA, NHL, MLB, and MLS prohibited media access to locker rooms to prevent potential spreading of the coronavirus.  Instead of conducting postgame interviews in the locker rooms, all interviews were changed to be conducted like press conferences; mandating the media to be at least six feet away from the players.  This was the first step that the leagues took early in working to protect players and prevent the spreading of the virus. Soon after, the NBA specifically encouraged their players to refrain from signing autographs or having any contact with fans.
Next, the NBA sent a memo to all teams to inform them to prepare for the possibility of playing games without fans.  Then the final blow came—the NBA suspended the season indefinitely, with Commissioner Adam Silver saying he was unsure of the future. While unfortunate, this was the correct decision to make for public health and safety. Although the safe decision to make, there may be legal consequences coming from this decision. There is often a disclaimer on the back of NBA tickets that contains language, “the holder of this ticket voluntarily assumes all risk and danger of personal injury and all hazards arising from, or related in any way to the Event.” However, the scope of this disclaimer likely would not include the coronavirus as this assumption of the risk is unrelated to attending a game itself.  Since Rudy Gobert became the first NBA player to test positive on Wednesday (Mar. 11), and then Donovan Mitchell on Thursday (Mar. 12), the NBA would have likely exposed themselves to liability for negligence if they continued to hold games.  Obviously public health and the safety of people are far more important than the risk posed by continuing play.
Aside from other potential legal repercussions, there are also potential problems with employment contracts from many employees in the sports industry. It is unclear at this point what will happen with employment contracts, but there are provisions in the NBA CBA regarding “force majeure,” which refers to an “act of God,” such as an uncontrollable circumstance, like COVID-19.  Among those circumstances that could apply are epidemics. However, hopefully this provision will not come into play and the break will not extend that far.
The people who will be most victimized of the suspension are arena workers and vendors. Since they are often employed on a seasonal basis and will not be needed for at least a month, they will not be paid for their normal work. However, this issue was detected early by Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban as he pledged to support the arena workers. Similarly, Kevin Love, of the Cleveland Cavaliers has donated $100,000 to employees of the Cleveland arena.  Zion Williamson and several others have also chosen to contribute to the salaries of arena staff, and hopefully more will continue to follow suit.
Similarly, COVID-19 has impacted the NCAA in unfortunate and drastic ways: the NCAA cancelled the 2020 March Madness Tournaments. While this was the safest decision to make, there have been many unfortunate repercussions. In addition to college seasons being suspended, the cancellation of the NCAA Tournament has sent shockwaves throughout sports. As a result, many senior athletes have pleaded for another year of eligibility. Therefore, this breeds a whole new host of problems, including scholarships and bigger rosters because next year’s freshmen have already been guaranteed spots on the roster.  Regarding the legal consequences of the cancellation, issues will likely arise out of the many sponsorship deals and contracts set for this year’s NCAA tournament. As such a large-scale event and money-maker, there will positively have to be amendments and changes to the agreements that have been impacted. 
The future is unclear for the sports world as COVID-19 continues to spread. Living without sports for this period is going to be difficult, but the health and safety of players, workers, and fans come first. It will likely take time before we see much movement in the way of legal repercussions.
 DePrisco, M., Weyrich, M., & Mayo, Q. (2020, March 11). Coronavirus media rules debut on jarring night for NBA. Retrieved from https://www.nbcsports.com/washington/wizards/coronavirus-media-restrictions-debut-jarring-night-nba
 McCann, M. (2020, March 8). Coronavirus Could Have Alarming Effects Across Sports. Retrieved from https://www.si.com/nba/2020/03/08/coronavirus-sports-job-losses-sponsorship-lawsuits
 McCann, M. (2020, March 12). Six Possible Fallouts From the Suspended NBA Season. Retrieved from https://www.si.com/nba/2020/03/12/nba-season-suspended-coronavirus-impact
 Des Bieler, J. R. (2020, March 14). NBA players, owners pledge assistance to arena workers. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/2020/03/12/kevin-love-mark-cuban-pledge-help-arena-workers-while-nba-season-is-suspended/
 Dodd, D. (2020, March 13). NCAA coronavirus response: Eight outstanding questions about where college sports goes from here. Retrieved from https://www.cbssports.com/college-football/news/ncaa-coronavirus-response-eight-outstanding-questions-about-where-college-sports-goes-from-here/
Photo: Mather, V. (2020, March 12). How the Coronavirus Is Disrupting Sports. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/12/sports/coronavirus-sports.html