A Few NBA Players Aren't Ready To Take The (COVID-19) Shot

Sep 30, 2021
Originally published on October 1, 2021 8:05 am

Updated September 30, 2021 at 12:25 PM ET

The NBA has returned and back with it are COVID-19 worries.

For a third season the association is navigating operating games while trying to avoid spreading the coronavirus.

This time around they have a new move: Vaccines — but not all players say they're ready to take them. The vast majority of players in the league are vaccinated, but some high-profile athletes have said they won't disclose if they're vaccinated or not.

Also notable, the WNBA said in June that 99% of its players were fully vaccinated.

The penalties for not proving vaccination

As training camp started this week, some players brushed off questions about the vaccine. The Brooklyn Nets' Kyrie Irving and Golden State Warriors player Andrew Wiggins told reporters they wanted to keep their vaccination status private.

But their statuses may not remain private for long: Both Wiggins and Irving play in cities with regulations barring unvaccinated players from playing in indoor arenas, and it's presumed they're both unvaccinated. It's unknown what will happen to players who remain unvaccinated and play in areas with such ordinances.

Rolling Stone reports some unvaccinated players are considering "skipping home games to dodge the New York City ordinance ... or at least threatening to protest them."

And since the NBA has announced unvaccinated players won't be paid for games they miss due to local ordinances requiring vaccines, some players could risk losing hundreds of thousands of dollars for each game they sit out.

High-profile calls for consequences

Bradley Beal of the Washington Wizards told reporters he wasn't vaccinated because of personal reasons, then went on to question what might happen if a player couldn't play because of complications from the vaccine. Irving has allegedly liked Instagram posts that include vaccine disinformation and conspiracy theories.

The COVID-19 vaccines are safe and highly effective at preventing death and serious illness. And scientists aren't the only ones saying so, basketball great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar also joined in.

In an article published in Rolling Stone Saturday, Abdul-Jabbar said the NBA should require all players and staff be vaccinated — or cut them from the teams.

"There is no room for players who are willing to risk the health and lives of their teammates, the staff and the fans simply because they are unable to grasp the seriousness of the situation or do the necessary research," Abdul-Jabbar said.

LA Lakers star LeBron James announced Tuesday that he'd been vaccinated. "I know that I was very skeptical about it all, but after doing my research and things of that nature, I felt like it was best suited for not only me but for my family and my friends, and that's why I decided to do it," James said during media availability with the team.

Precautions beyond the vaccine

ESPN reports added tension is bubbling up around unvaccinated players' statuses, as some NBA staff worry the players might spread COVID-19 and fuel breakthrough infections. The league required all personnel around players, including coaches and referees, be vaccinated, according to several media outlets.

The NBA doesn't have a vaccine mandate for players because the league says the players' union rejected the idea. The league reports it will implement a slew of other precautions. They include testing unvaccinated players often and barring them from visiting what the NBA called "higher-risk settings," such as restaurants, bars and clubs, the Associated Press reports.

Most players did roll up their sleeves, even without a league mandate. The New York Knicks report that their team's entire roster is vaccinated.

Michele Roberts of the National Basketball Players Association said the real story is how many players are vaccinated. "Over ninety percent (90%) of our Players are fully vaccinated. Nationally, on average only fifty-five (55%) of Americans are ... The real story for proponents of vaccination is how can we emulate the Players in the NBA."

Regular season play starts Oct. 19.


This story originally appeared on the Morning Edition live blog.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

The NBA is back. Training camps open this week. And for a third straight season, the league will work around the pandemic. The NBA set a standard last year when it played its games in a protective bubble in Florida. And now several high-profile players have weighed in on the national debate over coronavirus vaccinations. NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: NBA training camps began this week with media day interviews, a chance for reporters to ask players lots of questions, including, since we're still in a pandemic, whether they're vaccinated. It wasn't an easy yes or no answer for star players like Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KYRIE IRVING: Yeah, please respect my privacy. Next question.

GOLDMAN: ...And Andrew Wiggins, a forward for the Golden State Warriors.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANDREW WIGGINS: Anything that has to do with my status, vaccination, I'm just going to keep that private.

GOLDMAN: Wiggins and Irving each compete in cities where new regulations prevent unvaccinated players from playing in indoor arenas. While they want to keep their status private, it's presumed both are not vaccinated. The NBA recently denied Wiggins' request for a religious exemption. Irving spoke on a video link during his media day interview. The New York mandate would not have allowed an unvaccinated person to attend the event. So the players now could miss home games unless they get vaccinated and not get paid for those games.

This week, another star player, Bradley Beal of the Washington Wizards, was open about his situation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: And, sorry, I do not want to ask this question. Are you vaccinated?

BRADLEY BEAL: Oh, I am not vaccinated, no.

GOLDMAN: Beal, who had a recent bout with COVID-19, said his decision was based on personal reasons, but he didn't elaborate. Then he kind of did, saying people who get vaccinated still can get sick and that some can have adverse reactions to vaccines.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BEAL: What happens if one of our players gets the vaccine and they can't play after that or they have complications after that? I feel like we don't talk about those as heavily because they're so minute, maybe.

GOLDMAN: And the science is clear. Vaccinations are safe and highly effective at keeping people from getting really sick and dying. The next day, Beal was back in front of reporters, this time wearing a mask, stressing he wasn't advocating for others not to get vaccinated and that his decision isn't final.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BEAL: I'm not sitting here saying that I won't get it. Let's just get that out there.

GOLDMAN: That's good news to a long-ago NBA star. Hall of Fame center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has been speaking out against nonvaccinated players this week on CNN.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DON LEMON TONIGHT")

KAREEM ABDUL-JABBAR: I don't think they are behaving like good teammates or good citizens. Masks and vaccines - they are the weapons that we use to fight this war. And when you're not going to be cooperative with that, you're working against the effort to make everybody safe.

GOLDMAN: The NBA will do what it can, short of mandating vaccinations, which the league says the players union didn't want. There will be significant restrictions on nonvaccinated players.

In response to mounting criticism of those players, union head Michele Roberts said this week over 90% of NBA players are fully vaccinated, while only 55% of Americans are. The real story for proponents of vaccination, she said in a statement, is how can we emulate the players in the NBA? But that's not the story this week, a story that's rapidly becoming political. Yesterday, conservative Texas Senator Ted Cruz tweeted his support for Kyrie Irving, Andrew Wiggins and other unvaccinated players, using the hashtag #YourBodyYourChoice.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ST/MIC'S "THERE ARE MEMORIES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.