According to the National Institute of Health, lack of sleep can affect the immune system, cause obesity and heart disease and can even lead to “diabetic-like conditions in otherwise healthy” individuals. Despite overwhelming evidence that rest is needed by the body and the brain, the NBA has a “dirty little secret that everybody knows about.” It is depriving its players and staff of getting the proper sleep they need. But, if you ask the league, players’ health is a “major focus” for the NBA. Players, coaches and GMs are beginning to believe that this may be nothing more than a line.
In a typical schedule, teams play 82 games in less than six months. They have to fly as many as 50,000 miles a season – about 20,000 more than any NFL team – and often play back-to-back games in different cities with less than 18 hours between then. For the 2018-19 season, for example, the average NBA team played a game every 2.07 days and had 13.3 back-to-back contests.
It has become a “very big issue,” according to one team GM. Another states, “We have a large population of vampires as it is — add in the travel and it’s more so. We all want better solutions to this.” Yet another adds, “It is a real problem for the entire league.”
It apparently isn’t as big an issue to the NBA. It was asked to weigh in on the subject and stated that “player health and wellness continues to be a major focus for the NBA.” It justified its stance by adding that it is making “significant game schedule changes, an investment in a new airline charter program, a focus on mental health and wellness, and the advancement of wearable technology. … Sleep is an area we look at closely as part of this effort.”
The league has tried to make changes as it asserts. It has made the season longer and reduced back-to-back games in each of the last five seasons. Whereas four games in five days would have been the norm a couple of years ago, that has now been completely eliminated. However, these efforts don’t seem to go far enough and one unidentified source says that the subject is the “biggest issue without a solution.”
CJ McCollum, a guard for the Portland Trail Blazers, recognizes the importance of sleep. He explains, “Lack of sleep messes up your recovery, messes up how you play, your cognitive function, your mindset, how you’re moving on the court. Sleep is everything.”
He isn’t the only one. Even four-time MVP LeBron James was strict with his routine. He has said that he spends millions of dollars each year on his well-being and has guidelines that have to be followed when he’s on the road. Hotel rooms have to be set to an exact temperature, all electronics have to be shut off 30-45 minutes before he goes to bed and, absent his instructions, things can get ugly.
Others, such as Andre Iguodala, have even had to start working with sleep therapists. Iguodala joined the Warriors in 2013 and, before that, asserts that he suffered sleep deprivation for almost ten years. Tobias Harris probably has the most stringent routine – he carries around an electroencephalogram machine and checks his brain waves virtually every day. If the readings escape an established range, he doesn’t take to the court.
Some say that the NBA treats its players worse than underage employees in a third-world sweat shop. Scientists have asserted that living off of four to five hours of sleep a night is enough to survive. However, as one NBA executive states, “But we’re not asking our players to just be alive. We’re asking them to perform at an elite level against others at an elite level. There’s a huge difference between those two things.”
Now, sleep deprivation is surfacing as the next big health scare among athletes. With the knowledge already coming to light, it’s time for the NBA to make a proactive choice in protecting those individuals who are responsible for the hundreds of millions of dollars the league makes each year.