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ESSAY: The NBA, COVID, and responsibility

Brian Fleurantin who often writes for us on social justice issues, offers his thoughts on the issue of how some of the NBA’s biggest stars are resisting the vaccine ... or refusing to encourage others to get jabbed.

Toronto Raptors v Orlando Magic - Game Three Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

The NBA is entering into its 75th season, and things are off to a rocky start. Media Day was last week, and COVID was the theme around the league. The league is currently trailing the 99 percent of WNBA players and 98 percent of NHL players who are vaccinated. As of this writing, the NBA is 95 percent vaccinated against COVID-19, but there have been a few loud, notable exceptions.

Recently, author Matt Sullivan published a story in Rolling Stone that discussed the NBA’s difficulty in obtaining 100 percent full COVID vaccinations. The story is punctuated by the anti vax and vaccine hesitancy from Orlando Magic wing, Jonathan Isaac, and Kyrie Irving’s aunt, Tyki Irving. He also discussed the labor complications this situation has wrought, as the player association, long loathe to give team ownership more control of players’ bodies, has resisted calls for vaccine mandates and to keep unvaccinated players as far away from vaccinated players as possible.

So, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that COVID was the topic of the day across the NBA on Media Day. In DC, Wizards All Star Bradley Beal stated he isn’t vaccinated and questioned the efficacy of the vaccines, before walking it back a day later. In Orlando, Isaac explained his reasoning not to get vaccinated. In San Francisco, Warriors forward Andrew Wiggins confirmed he wasn’t vaccinated either and when asked for further explanations about his beliefs on vaccinations, told reports “It’s none of your business.”, Closer to home, Irving deflected all the questions he received about his non-vaccinated status via Zoom since NYC regulations don’t allow for non-vaccinated players to take part in team activities within city limits. Irving, long a focus of intense debate, received criticism from everywhere you can think of, ranging from Hall of Famers Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O’Neal, all the way up to the Prime Minister of Spain! As it happened, the unvaccinated players were defended by Texas Senator and noted troll, Ted Cruz.

Lakers superstar and face of the NBA, LeBron James, confirmed he was fully vaccinated, but when asked if he would take part in a vaccination campaign similar to other players, said this:

“We’re talking about individual bodies. We’re not talking about something political, or racism or police brutality. We’re talking about people’s bodies and well-being. I don’t think I personally should get involved in what other people should do for their bodies and livelihoods. That would be like me talking about if somebody should take this job or not. Listen, you have to do what’s best for you and your family.”

He also cosigned Draymond Green’s commentary as he defended Wiggins’ non-vaccination and among other things, said he wouldn’t ask a teammate if he had received a polio vaccine (It should be noted that polio was eradicated in 1979 thanks to vaccination efforts). This was a curious and frustrating answer from someone that operates a well renowned public school, so the idea and importance of public health is certainly not foreign to James.

And speaking of Wiggins...

Yeah.

If you think back to the end of the 2020 playoffs, the NBA received praise from practically everywhere you looked as their response to COVID was lauded as what you should do as an organization, especially in comparison to the Presidential administration that was in charge at the time. To a person, everyone associated with the NBA talked about how vital it was to follow the science, trust the CDC, etc. Now that there’s an option that will help to end the crisis and keep people safe, and you’ve got players including some of the game’s biggest stars expressing unfounded skepticism and even throwing doubt about vaccines that have been proven to be safe.

What’s been frustrating about the responses from some of the players is that when it comes to other social issues, they don’t straddle the fence. You think of any issue related to race, justice, and equality, and when players speak about it, they speak with a sense of knowledge and clarity that shows they’ve studied the topic and are clear in what they share with the public. They aren’t wishy washy, don’t give credence to bad faith arguments or conspiracy theories, and do what they can to help those around them. It’s a sharp contrast to now when some of those biggest names are casting doubt on something that has been shown to keep people safe, largely without hospitalization.

The players have been positioned as leaders and with leadership comes a responsibility that they don’t do something as irresponsible and reckless as promoting vaccine skepticism.

As the NBA heads into its first full season since the pandemic started, they’re hoping beyond hope that things can return to normal as quickly as possible. Despite some loud hiccups along the way, the league is inching closer to being fully vaccinated by the week and it should be noted despite the holdouts, NBA players as a group are among the highest vaccinated professions. Now that they’re getting there, they need everyone on board to ensure players, coaches, referees, staff and fans are as safe as possible. That starts with getting vaccinated and putting an end to anti vax paranoia and foolishness. It’s the least they could do.