An Unlikely Confrontation: Inside the NBA's Losing Battle with Sleep
Updated: Oct 2, 2020
In recent years, the effects of concussions on former National Football League (NFL) players have been thrust into the public eye with new academic research and studies alike depicting the devastating effects of CTE, a brain disease, and prompting a series of lawsuits aimed at the NFL for failing to fully protect former players. Among other things, the NFL has enforced new helmet restrictions (which angered and caused the first retirement scare for a current Eastern Michigan University student) and implemented an improved concussion protocol—that requires the approval of an independent neurological consultant to return to the field—to reduce both the frequency and severity of these head injuries.
In sharp contrast, due to its less violent nature, is the National Basketball Association (NBA). However, the NBA now has a dilemma involving sleep—or lack-thereof—after a bombshell article written by Baxter Holmes exposed the harsh reality that NBA players are forced to endure. Unlike Major League Baseball (MLB), where teams play multiple games against one team and thus stay in the same cities for consecutive nights, or the NFL, where teams play one game per week and thus have a comparatively easy travel schedule, the NBA plays a packed 82 game season where franchises play a team only once in the same location, making their travel schedule all the more burdensome. Though the NBA has lengthened the season and reduced the amount of back-to-backs (playing on consecutive nights) a team has on its schedule, players are still forced to occasionally play three games in four nights, and the NBA has effectively only placed a band-aide on a bullet wound—failing to address the much deeper problem.
That is, players currently do not receive the amount of sleep necessary to perform consistently at a high level throughout the course of a season and their entire careers. The effects of this deficiency are worrisome and eye-opening. It starts with messing up circadian rhythms, which explain the tendency for humans to sleep at night and wake up in the morning. Sleep deprivation ensues when these rhythms are distorted and the health effects can range from cancer to obesity to suicide. And though most people like to believe that their bodies can withstand fewer hours in bed, evidence strongly argues otherwise, indicating a clear reduction in performance. As such, notable players including LeBron James, Andre Iguodala, and Tobias Harris have resorted to different tactics to improve their sleep quality. These include investing in machines that track their vitals, refraining from using electronics up to one hour before bed, and lowering the hotel room temperature to maximize their short window of rest. Still, these players are only coping with an enduring problem because the NBA has failed to address the root issue.
It will take years of research to prove reductions in effectiveness and productivity in NBA players are surely caused by a lack of sleep, but a more present day example may shed light on the issue. In an increasingly global and interconnected world, the NBA has attempted to generate new revenue streams by entering untapped world markets, such as India and, most notably, China. Teams travel to China during the preseason to spread their influence and promote their brand. While the positive effects of the trip are clear, their level of play that carries into the regular season is much more controversial. In fact, an analysis by Brian Lewis details that teams that have played preseason games in China record a .513 winning percentage in their first 10 games, compared to a .587 mark for the final 72—or an improvement of six wins, which could mean the difference between a top seed and a bubble playoff team. The change in time zones, corresponding disruption in sleeping rhythms, and difficulty in readjusting undoubtedly plays a major role in the team's reduced success during the beginning of the season.
Overall, reports are new and studies are limited, but the scientific evidence that is available compounded with player stories should add a particular sense of urgency to this issue. Within the NBA community, an executive has stated that sleep deprivation is "the dirty little secret that everybody knows about." Until now, outside that small circle sleep deprivation was the dirty little secret that no one knew about. Now in the public view, the NBA must act quickly to effect lasting change before the league can be held financially responsible for players' health problems, like the situation currently evolving in the NFL with concussions.