A basketball sits on a basketball court while players warm up in the background.
When sleep is viewed as a performance-enhancing strategy, the work of being an athlete never stops. Recovery becomes a sphere of performance in which athletes are closely monitored and expected to excel. (photo via Sports Illustrated)

Issues related to athlete welfare are impossible to ignore as the National Basketball Association (NBA) leaves the “bubble” behind and begins the 2020-21 regular season on December 22. As play resumes, sleep and athlete recovery will be a major area of media attention and discussion within the league.

It is no secret that NBA players are routinely exposed to poor sleep, jetlag, and overtraining. Teams play 82 games in a 6-month period and travel an average of 40,000 miles a season. Commissioner Adam Silver called rest a “significant issue,” and Michelle Roberts, Executive Director of the NBA Players Association, predicts that sleep will be an issue in future collective bargaining. Just last week, the NBA updated its rest policy, specifying that teams may face fines of $100,000 if they decide to sit out healthy players in nationally-televised games.

Given this context, promoting sleep may seem like an easy way to safeguard players’ wellbeing. But the rise of a “sleep-friendly” NBA shows that fostering athlete welfare is more complex than it may first appear.

Few observers would deny that better and more sleep could benefit NBA athletes, at least in the short run. A 2011 study about the impact of “extra” sleep in college basketball players, for instance, found that when athletes slept 10 or more hours a night, they performed better in physical tasks and reported increased ratings of mood, health, and overall sense of wellbeing.

But in the long run, the strategic use of sleep does not change grueling game or travel schedules. In fact, it makes NBA players and their recovery habits subject to greater moral regulation and invasive digital surveillance. These trends matter for the rest of us because cultural sites like the NBA increasingly shape our collective understandings of sleep problems and the best ways to solve them.

A Sleep-Friendly NBA?

The global sleep industry is worth an estimated $76 billion, as new specialized services, products, drugs, and technologies promise to insulate people from the intrusions of a society that is organized by speed, a 24/7 economy, and endless communication and entertainment.

In our sleep-obsessed times, the NBA is a key site where ideas about daily recovery are being revised. NBA teams consult with sleep experts, such as Dr. Charles Czeisler, and pursue new sleep-related sponsorship agreements. Bedgear, for example, is the “official pillow and mattress partner” of the Dallas Mavericks, and the company regularly hosts game day promotions and community events designed to educate the public on the importance of good sleep for daily performance.

The NBA is also a highly racialized setting. Its athletic workforce is mostly Black, while coaching staffs, medical teams, and team owners are mostly white. Racist and paternalistic attitudes have often meant that NBA players are treated as if they are a “problem” and require constant oversight and management.

A pro-sleep agenda can intensify what was already a place of hyper-visibility and hyper-surveillance for Black athletes. Consider how Rise Science’s signature sleep tracking mattress technology and coaching services create new ways of monitoring athletes off court.

Rise Science has worked with the Chicago Bulls and collaborates with Twilio (another tech start up that specializes in text messaging) to deliver personalized sleep coaching. Ninety minutes before bedtime, athletes receive text messages to remind them to put on glasses that block blue light. Another notification lets athletes know it is time for bed, at which point players are supposed to get into bed alone, don a sleep mask, and set the room temperature between 62-67 degrees. Every morning coaches receive a report that states the team’s “readiness” and notes any potential “high-risk” athletes who did not fully recover. Athletes also receive their personal sleep data on their phones via a Rise Science app.

Sleep coaching services and technologies may certainly be enticing for some athletes. But digital tracking methods are not experienced by everyone in the same way. Many people overlook the impact of scientific racism and medical discrimination, and research shows that prejudicial patterns shape how some Black NBA players encounter biometric sleep technologies. It can be difficult for some players to fully trust team owners or to feel complete confidence about whose interests sleep technologies most serve.

When sleep is a performance-enhancing strategy, the work of being an athlete never stops. Far from easing the burden of endless productivity, sleep opens new avenues to extract more performance and profits from athletes’ bodies. Recovery becomes a new sphere of performance where athletes try to excel.

Sleep creates new moral grounds to assess athletes and their work ethic. Those like LeBron James, who spends $1.5 million annually to prepare his body for competition and refers to sleep “as the best recovery you could possibly get,” are seen as having the “right” priorities.

Those who do not take sleep as seriously may be labeled irresponsible, selfish, anti-social, or even dangerous. Consider recent headlines raising concerns about NBA players who might be “addicted” to multi-player games like Fortnite and League of Legends. Anxieties about late-night gaming might appear silly or even a little dull. Yet this fits into a familiar racist pattern, which reinforces the idea that “irresponsible” Black male athletes need constant supervision.

Sleep like a pro

It is important to challenge toxic sporting cultures that leave athletes exhausted. But it is equally important to recognize the limits of “healthy” sport. Strategies to make competitive sport “healthier”–in this instance through the promotion of sleep—may ultimately diminish the wellbeing of athletes in ways that are not immediately obvious.

Instead of transforming the excessive demands of the NBA workplace, scientific and technical problem-solving aim to change athletes. This leads to new rest-related obligations and intrusive forms of digital monitoring. The cultural prominence of the NBA and other professional sport settings entrenches individualized solutions that make it more difficult to see how social and structural forces, such as racism, shape sleep and sleep disparities today.

For example, sleep researchers highlight the “racial sleep gap,” which shows African Americans sleep less well than their white counterparts. Evidence suggests experiences of racism negatively impact self-reported scores of daytime sleepiness and sleep disturbances. The chronic psychosocial stress related to the anticipation of daily discrimination can create a type of “vigilance” that interferes with sleep.

Relying on technical fixes and asking athletes to “go to bed” dismisses the social and political transformations necessary to create more restful and restorative workplaces and sport settings. But the work of reimagining recovery is already underway and being led by Black women like Tricia Hersey, who founded the Nap Ministry to explore the radical potential of napping and community rest in struggles for racial justice. Ultimately, an emerging “sleep friendly NBA” highlights the need to better account for social difference and inequality in rest-related problem solving that aims to make sport healthier through off-court recovery.

Sarah Barnes is Postdoctoral Fellow in the Sport, Society, and Technology Program in the School of History and Sociology at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Her research interests focus on sport and wellbeing in a rapidly changing society. The full version of Barnes’ recent study on sleep in the NBA was published online ahead of print in Sociology of Sport Journal.