Could lack of sex force players to break the NBA’s bubble?

They’ll be without their partners for weeks when NBA resumes from Covid-19 break

The NBA is preparing to resume competitive action on July 30th. File photograph: Getty Images

The NBA is preparing to resume competitive action on July 30th. File photograph: Getty Images


At one end of the spectrum there is Wilt Chamberlain, the NBA Hall of Famer who built a Bel Air mansion with a mirrored velvet sex den and claimed to have bedded 20,000 women.

At the other, the three-time champion AC Green is best known for two feats of stamina: appearing in an NBA-record 1,192 consecutive games and staying a virgin throughout his 16-year career.

Somewhere between these two extremes, presumably, are the several hundred players floating in the NBA’s Disney World isolation “bubble” as the league prepares to resume competitive action on July 30th. Those who go beyond the first round of the playoffs will endure a wait of about seven weeks before family members or friends can arrive. The finals may not finish until October 13th, making it a three-month trip for the last sides standing.

It’s clearly a logistical, physical and emotional test. LeBron James wrote on Twitter that heading to Florida feels like going to prison. With 41 road games in a normal regular season, NBA players are used to living out of a suitcase. But this is very different: they are stuck in a state that is a Covid-19 hotspot, potentially enduring boredom, anxiety and loneliness, however comfortable the accommodation.

The need to limit contact to minimise the risks of spreading the virus is obvious, but one prominent pundit questioned whether libidinous players will adhere to the rules. “Do we really think that the ‘recreational activities’, what these guys are accustomed to, are going to be compromised for three months?” Stephen A Smith thundered on ESPN.

“You really think that people are going to be without their wives or their woman?” he added. “Forget three months – they’re going to struggle with three weeks… I’m telling you, they’re going to violate the bubble.” Many players would have preferred to be sequestered in Las Vegas rather than Disney World, he added, given Sin City’s more adult-oriented panoply of diversions.

However logical and necessary given the situation, stowing players in a tightly-regimented exclusion zone for months feels like taking the control that teams often try to exercise over extracurricular activities to a dystopian extreme.

It was reported last year that US public universities collectively spend millions of dollars each season on hotel stays for their American football teams – before home games. Alex Ferguson, the former Manchester United manager, encouraged his charges to marry young, believing it would quench their thirst for wild partying.

Stories about sex bans are a familiar feature of media coverage during major soccer tournaments. Ahead of the 2014 Fifa World Cup, Miguel Herrera, the then Mexico coach, told Reforma: “If a player can’t go one month or 20 days without having sexual relations, then they are not prepared to be a professional player … Forty days of sexual abstinence is not going to hurt anyone.”

The idea that sexual abstinence improves sporting performance harks back to ancient Rome and Greece, where semen was associated with strength and athletes commonly tied up their penises. Some coaches discourage sexual activity shortly before games or during tournaments, whether through a belief that frustration encourages aggression, or that sex – and the pursuit of it – is distracting and tiring. Modern thinking, though, is more permissive.

“We know sex, connection, physical touch and orgasms all help us stay healthy,” says Dr Jennifer Valli, a certified sex therapist. “Studies show orgasms help relieve pain, reduce stress, and improve sleep.” She adds: “Sexual health isn’t frivolous. It contributes to quality of life and good health.”

A 2016 study on sexual activity and sport found that: “The present evidence suggests that sexual activity the day before competition does not exert any negative impact on performance, even though high-quality, randomised controlled studies are urgently needed.”

Athletes can benefit from the stress-reducing effects of sex, according to Dr Mike Young, director of performance at Athletic Lab, who also studied the topic in 2016, examining the effects of masturbation on acceleration, peak power and vertical jumping, among other things.

“As long as you don’t have qualms about sex and performance – usually related to some kind of religious conviction – it’s actually likely good for you. At the very least, neutral for you,” he says. “Probably the best summary of it is that if you feel like you need it, you probably do, in some fashion.”

Contact is biologically important, he says: “Any physical touch reduces cortisol, a stress hormone. A lack of physical touch increases it. It’s not just a perception of need or hurting your well-being, there’s actually a physiological response. Human beings need to have physical touch. People who have sex regularly – or even a 20-second hug – have reduced cortisol levels.”

As sports restart, some NBA, WNBA, MLB, NHL, NWSL and MLS players have opted out, citing reasons including a fear of infection, injuries, family matters, and a desire to focus on racial equality activism.

Young has spent several weeks in a bubble in Utah in his role as performance director for the North Carolina Courage of the NWSL, which returned last month from a pandemic-induced suspension.

“After about one week you could see people were getting a little bit stir-crazy. It is basically groundhog day every day,” he says. Despite the sense of community that comes from living together, he believes, there is a general mood of unease. In such an abnormal environment, being apart from loved ones is not the only hardship.

“Teams don’t want to go in the elevator together, it’s a logistical jigsaw puzzle with who gets the pool at this time, who gets the weight room at this time, how do you eliminate too much crossing of paths at mealtime?” he says.

“The fact that you don’t have free will is a big part of it. We literally have a Starbucks across the street from us and we can’t go to the Starbucks. Players and coaches are complaining about the coffee. To be honest, the coffee’s not that bad. It’s just that you don’t have a choice of what you want to eat or where you want to go.”

Young predicts that lack of physical contact will be “one of the biggest stress tests” for sequestered leagues with lengthy schedules like the NBA. “A week, two weeks, probably not that big a deal – but we’re looking at six-plus weeks. I think that’s going to be one of the first places that the bubble will break, to be honest.”

- Guardian

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