Lakers star LeBron James said this week that he has been vaccinated. (Harry How/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and LeBron James have led the Los Angeles Lakers to championships, they have won praise and drawn criticism for their social justice activism, and they have received their coronavirus vaccination. Yet the basketball greats have approached vaccine advocacy in starkly different manners. Abdul-Jabbar, 74, received his shot in the NBA’s first vaccine public service announcement in January, and he excoriated unvaccinated players who dominated headlines this week.
“Those who claim they need to do ‘more research’ are simply announcing they have done no research,” the Hall of Fame center wrote in an essay, adding that their position “perpetuates the stereotype of the dumb jock who’s only in sports for the money.” By contrast, James, 36, spent months refusing to disclose his status before acknowledging Tuesday that he had been vaccinated despite feeling “very skeptical” at first. While the Lakers are set to be fully vaccinated by opening night, James adopted a hands-off stance.
“We’re talking about individual bodies,” James said. “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. … I know what I did for me and my family. I know what some of my friends did for their families. But as far as speaking for everybody and their individualities, and things they want to do, that’s not my job.” James’s libertarianism toward the vaccine, rather than Abdul-Jabbar’s strident support, represents the standard public posture among current NBA players, who are set to enter their third pandemic season next month. Although an estimated 90 percent of players, including the vast majority of stars, have been vaccinated, a number of notable players, including Kyrie Irving, Bradley Beal and Andrew Wiggins, have sparked a public backlash, dragged the league into the national debate over vaccine mandates and, in some cases, potentially compromised their availability to play and receive paychecks by refusing to get the shot.
The mandate debate
An informal survey of NBA executives, coaches and players this week revealed several contributing factors to the league’s vaccine predicament but returned a sanguine attitude toward the coming season. After being at the forefront of the sports world in leading a safe restart of the 2019-20 season at Disney World and opening the 2020-21 season without any vaccinations and few fans in the stands, the prevailing belief is that the worst of the pandemic is in the past. As vaccine adoption increased in the spring, the 2021 playoffs were held without any postponed games and just one notable player testing positive. The league is taking steps toward normalcy this season by increasing media access and crowd sizes, and the 90 percent player vaccination rate — which trails the NFL’s 93 percent and the WNBA’s 99 percent — is expected to increase by opening night. But the NBA’s twisted path on the vaccine issue, which overshadowed other media day topics across the league this week, began in a different place in December. Commissioner Adam Silver assured the public that his players wouldn’t “cut the line” to receive vaccine doses, which were then in short supply. With vaccines now widely available for months, the initial calls for players to wait their turn have given way to demands that players get with the program.
The league’s health protocols mandate vaccines for coaches, referees, media members and executives, but they don’t extend to the players. However, local regulations in New York and San Francisco mandate vaccination for players on the New York Knicks, Brooklyn Nets and Golden State Warriors, forcing unvaccinated players to sit out home games. Other jurisdictions could follow. Irving, who didn’t attend Nets media day in Brooklyn because of the local health protocols, repeatedly declined to explain his position on vaccination or reveal his vaccination status and said his absence “doesn’t mean I’m putting any limits on the future on my being able to join the team.” The all-star guard joined his teammates for training camp in San Diego this week, but his availability going forward remains unknown. Wiggins, a Warriors forward, also declined to explain his vaccine stance, telling a reporter that his beliefs were “none of your business” and admitting that his “back is definitely against the wall” because of San Francisco’s mandate.
Fan outrage toward unvaccinated players is mirrored, in some cases, by frustration and fear from vaccinated members of the NBA community. One assistant coach referred to unvaccinated players as “the weakest link” in the league’s health protocols, and another team employee said his organization would have far fewer headaches if all of its players were vaccinated.
According to a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study, unvaccinated people are nearly five times more likely to become infected than vaccinated people, meaning that the unvaccinated minority of players increases the chance of breakthrough cases among vaccinated players, coaches and staffers. “The risk is borne not only by the person making the decision but also by others who cross their path,” professors Leana Wen and Sam Wang wrote recently.
The NBA said Tuesday that it sought a vaccine mandate for players during offseason talks with the National Basketball Players Association but was rebuffed. “The NBA has made these proposals, but the players’ union has rejected any vaccination requirement,” spokesman Mike Bass said.
In lieu of a formal mandate, the NBA has applied pressure by structuring its health protocols to strongly incentivize vaccination and by issuing a statement Wednesday noting that “any player who elects not to comply with local vaccination mandates will not be paid for games that he misses.” This season, vaccinated players will not be subjected to regular testing, while unvaccinated players must undergo testing and will not be allowed to eat indoors with their teammates or socialize in public venues. Wiggins, whose request to be exempted from San Francisco’s vaccine mandate on religious grounds was denied by the NBA last week, would forfeit half of his $31.2 million contract if he were unable to play in Golden State’s home games. “They kind of make it difficult on us to kind of force us, in a way, to want to get it,” said Beal, the unvaccinated Washington Wizards guard who questioned the effectiveness of vaccines this week.
The NBPA hasn’t directly addressed the vaccination status or beliefs of Irving, Beal and Wiggins, although outgoing executive director Michele Roberts issued a statement Tuesday noting that the vaccination rate among players exceeds the national vaccination rate. In addition to James, superstars such as Giannis Antetokounmpo, Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard and Anthony Davis confirmed this week that they were vaccinated. “The real story is not why vaccination isn’t mandated in the NBA,” Roberts said in a statement. “The real story for proponents of vaccination is how can we emulate the players in the NBA.” Portland Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum, the new union president, said at media day that he represents “450 players with 450 different mind-sets” and that he was “trying to respect everyone’s opinion and educate them as best you can.” That has surely been a delicate dance, given that Irving has served as a union vice president since February 2020.
Activism or silence
Roberts, who is vaccinated, took a cautious public stance during the first stages of the vaccine’s rollout, saying in a January interview with Yahoo that she was “not a cheerleader” for the shot and “eager to be convinced that these are safe.” That initial skepticism was shared by many players and, coupled with lingering distrust of medical institutions and the possibility of backlash if NBA personnel received preferential treatment, helped cast vaccination as a personal matter rather than as a public initiative. That framing, in turn, provided time and space for anti-vaccine players to harden their opposition. “There’s a hesitancy to put something in their bodies and another hesitancy to step on toes,” said one team executive, who said his players tend to view vaccination as a private topic that shouldn’t be discussed publicly by teammates, much like surgery or a contract negotiation.
The obvious exception to this rule has been Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns, who lost his mother and six other family members to covid-related deaths before dropping 50 pounds after he contracted the virus himself. Towns has filmed an emotional video and public service announcement about the virus, and he recently vented his frustration with the unvaccinated.
Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns has been vocal about covid prevention and pro-vaccine. (Jim Mone/AP)
“Every day I see a new excuse why people ain’t getting the vaccine,” Towns wrote on Twitter. “Ya starting to get creative with these ‘reasons’ though and it’s actually really funny. Same people that make crazy false narratives have no facts AT ALL, are too lazy to do the research. They just make judgment if the narrative is true or false to seek some kind of weak a-- entertainment.” Towns said this week that his story helped influence two skeptical teammates to get their shots, but his pleas have sometimes been lost in the shuffle on social media. Ditto for the NBA’s extensive outreach efforts, which have had to counter apathy among some players and online misinformation.
Beginning in the winter, Leroy Sims, the league’s senior vice president of medical affairs, held meetings with all 30 teams to discuss vaccine safety and effectiveness. Privately, the NBA sent regular communications to its teams and worked with the NBPA to furnish information to players. Teams dialed up their own campaigns, holding health roundtables, hosting public vaccination sites at their facilities and repeatedly emphasizing to players that they would have expanded freedoms under the league’s protocols if vaccinated.
Publicly, the NBA leaned on legends such as Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Russell for their early vaccine PSAs because they were in at-risk groups due to their age, then released a spot in April featuring 10 current players, including Towns and Warriors all-star Klay Thompson. But James, Kevin Durant and other A-listers have been noticeably absent from those efforts, a point of frustration for some within the league. Different theories abound to explain the silence, although it’s possible that there would be greater engagement if more players had been directly impacted as Towns was.
NBA players are at relatively low risk of experiencing serious symptoms if they contract the virus because of their age and fitness level, and they have lived and worked in heavily restricted and regulated environments for the past two seasons while having regular access to testing. No player has died, and a small percentage of those who have tested positive have reported serious symptoms or side effects. For many players, a positive coronavirus test has meant an isolation period from his team followed by a relatively quick return to work — rather than a life-altering medical crisis.
Superstars choose their passion projects carefully and, as James noted this week, his focus remains elsewhere. NBA players might question both the clear risks and nebulous rewards of vaccine advocacy. After all, players have been regular targets of conservative critics when they have spoken out on charged issues.
In one sign of the politicization of player involvement, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) tweeted his support of Irving, Wiggins and Beal on Wednesday and said James “could SOLVE the problem” by refusing to “play in any arena that bans another NBA player because they make a personal health care choice.”
At the same time, it’s easy for a player to see the impact of his donation to a school or a community organization but much harder to quantify his impact on a global crisis. To Abdul-Jabbar, that probably sounds like a list of excuses.
“Athletes and other celebrities have a public platform to help alleviate this crisis and to save lives,” he wrote. “To not take on that responsibility harms the sports and entertainment industries, the community, and the country.”