Within just a few days of each other, both the National Basketball Association (NBA) and Major League Baseball (MLB) have reached labor agreements with their respective players associations. "They did a good job communicating and were able to come to an agreement tentatively. That's a great start for both parties,” reacted Russell Westbrook, the All-Star point guard for the Oklahoma City Thunder, to the new NBA deal. While these labor negotiations indeed represent a ‘great start’ for these leagues in general, they also represent a different kind of great start. For the first time, professional sporting leagues are formally recognizing the important role sleep plays in terms of player health and performance. This is a tremendous great start.
Looking at the NBA and MLB collective bargaining agreements (CBA), it is clear both leagues are working towards providing players with more of an opportunity to rest during the season. In addition, they are working towards reducing back-to-back games that result in a decline in performance and a lessened product on the court/field. In many cases, these travel situations produce unfair competitive advantages for one team. Here is the specific rest-related language in each agreement.
NBA Labor Agreement
A shorter preseason, with no more than six exhibition games before the start of the regular season and an earlier start to the regular season, which should further reduce both back to back games and stretches of four games in five nights.
MLB Labor Agreement
Section II (Scheduling, Postseason Play and Disabled List) A. Beginning in 2018, the regular season will be expanded to provide four additional off-days for players. Players will continue to be credited with a full year of service for accruing 172 service days over 187 days, rather than 183. B. Additional restrictions on start times of games on getaway days so that players will arrive in their next city at an earlier time.
From the perspective of a sleep specialist, this is absolutely incredible. In 2004, I accidentally fell into the world of sleep and athletics when I decided to investigate if travel irregularities affected MLB team performance and competitive balance. At the time of my study, there was little research that looked at the role sleep played in sport performance. That trend has changed dramatically. In 2015 and 2016 there were more studies looking at sleep and athletic performance than in the 60 years prior to 2004.
So fast forward to the end of 2016, and we have both the NBA and MLB recognizing in their collective bargaining agreements that sleep matters and more opportunities to rest and recover are so important that language has been inserted into their labor deals.
Sleep a foundational pillar of our health. Study after study has shown healthy sleep to be an essential part of elite athletic performance. As someone who has dedicated his life to promoting healthy sleep, hearing the news from these two leagues feels like a huge victory for everyone in the small community of sleep and athletic performance.
This may only be the beginning of changes seen in professional sports brought about by sleep science. There are reports that the NFL is considering doing away with games on Thursday night. When teams play on Thursday, the games occur after a shortened week. This reduction in time not only cuts into team preparation, but it more importantly reduces the time athletes need to recover. This produces what many feel to be an inferior product on the field. This is in addition to the NFL’s experiment of playing games in other foreign cities like London which takes even more of a toll on its players via travel and jet lag.
The science of proper nutrition and hydration was not universally accepted overnight. Neither will the science of sleep within professional sports. These early signs of acceptance should not be overlooked as they may be heralding in a new school of thinking when it comes to how we protect the health of our athletes.