Candid Coaches: What are the vaccination rates in college basketball heading into this season?


CBS Sports college basketball writers Gary Parrish and Matt Norlander surveyed more than 100 coaches for our annual Candid Coaches series. They polled everyone from head coaches at elite programs to assistants at smaller Division I schools. In exchange for complete anonymity, the coaches provided unfiltered honesty about a number of topics. Over the next two weeks, we’ll be posting the results on 10 questions asked.

College basketball didn’t have the luxury of starting last season with a vaccine available for the American public. As hundreds upon hundreds of games were postponed and/or canceled last season, a common refrain thrummed throughout the sport: get us to a vaccine, so we never have to do this again

But by the time the unprecedented 2021 NCAA Tournament was held in one city (Indianapolis), the United States — for a time — was at a pace of more than a million vaccinations per day. And for more than three months now, the vaccine has been available to people ages 12 and up. With that, there have been some universities that have made vaccination (with very few exceptions) a mandate in order to be enrolled and/or employed. As most now realize, this is the key to maintaining structural integrity to a season. 

In terms of overhead, no sport has more tonnage than college basketball. So will the country’s busiest sport be well-equipped enough to stage a season with minimal hiccups? We surveyed coaches from nearly 30% of the schools in men’s D-I to get an idea of how vaccinated their programs are heading into October. 

How many players on your team are fully vaccinated?

All are vaccinated56%All but one14%All but two8%All but three7%Four or more unvaccinated15%

Who are the 10 most famous players in college hoops of the past 20 years? Listen to the Eye on College Basketball podcast now.  

Quotes that stood out

“Every student at our school is required to be vaccinated — athletes and non-athletes. This was never a concern for us. If somebody didn’t want to get vaccinated, they would’ve had to transfer.””We educated our players. Showed them data. Talked to them about what we can do if we’re vaccinated and what we can’t do if we’re not vaccinated. They were receptive. It really wasn’t hard getting to 100%. I’m proud of my guys.””Religious exemption, which is about as difficult to come by as a certificate to bring a dog into the airport … ‘religious exemption’ is a piece of cake. It is very frustrating. But COVID’s changed us and I don’t push it, I can’t, both kids are from really nice families. One kid’s mother is vaccinated but he doesn’t want to do it. The other kid’s parents are adamantly opposed to the vaccine. It’s frustrating. One is a really, really, really good player and I’m scared to death he’s going to test positive in January and he’s gone for two weeks. And we’ve had those conversations. I can’t turn him.” “I believe in the vaccine but I never want to go down the route of who should do what and why. They don’t pay me for that. Everyone should have the right to do what they want.” “I have a couple who are adamant they will not get it — and one of them is a religious stance. What can I do about that? It’s frustrating. We’ll keep talking to them, though.””I have four players. I tell them, ‘If you don’t get it, I’m not going to be mad at you, not going to yell at you, but I do think that we are a part of a team.’ But that’s as far as I go with it. I don’t beat them over the head. I don’t think I can do that.””We’re not where we want to be — but I think we’ll get there. When (the unvaccinated) realize how differently they’ll be treated than the rest of their teammates, that’ll be the final push we need.””The majority of our returning players went home this spring and were vaccinated before summer session began in June. All freshmen and transfers also were vaccinated before arriving on campus this summer. The message to those who were hesitant or still unvaccinated has come from our administration and medical team. They are highly encouraging vaccination for medical reasons, but have also said ‘life will be very difficult’ in reference to timing of tests before and after travel, and also deal with contact tracing rules.””I have one scholarship player [unvaccinated]. I don’t want to say it was the easiest thing I did, but I tell you what made it easier: the notion of having to quarantine again without being sick, which is what my son had to do because he’s not eligible for the vaccine. That made it easier for guys who are on the fence, because it happened to us in early August. Two guys were exposed, had to go into quarantine for seven days — despite not having any issue. And they thought, Well, we’re not doing this AGAIN.””Of the ones that are not vaccinated for ‘holistic, natural, spiritual’ reasons, I have thrown out every scenario possible at them. Two of them are parent-driven. One from a holistic standpoint, one from a spiritual standpoint.”

The takeaway

Monday brought about the latest round of unfortunate headlines from prominent sports figures and their thoughts about COVID-19 vaccines. This time, it was the NBA receiving some negative PR, as players like Kyrie Irving, Bradley Beal and Andrew Wiggins failed to adequately explain their stances against being vaccinated. (If Irving and Wiggins opt not to get vaccinated, local health guidelines in New York City and San Francisco will literally prevent them from being able to play home games.)

It’s unfortunate — but no surprise — how the most prominent dissenters of vaccines (which have been rigorously reviewed and are proven to be safe, effective and paramount to the planet moving past this pandemic) receive so much attention. Let’s amplify guys like Damian Lillard instead. The good news is that more than 90% of the NBA’s players are fully vaccinated. Getting to 100% is the dream for that league, as it is for every league.

I didn’t plan on invoking the NBA in a college basketball story, but the timing here is coincidental. We had today’s question scheduled for publish for a couple of weeks. College basketball is not immune to some of the same stubbornness from a fraction of its players that’s affecting over the NBA (and NFL and MLB and NHL and college football). While some basketball programs have been able to get their rosters entirely vaccinated, others are still working toward that. (Of note: today is the first day teams are officially allowed to properly practice, so happy opening day of the preseason.) 

As for our survey results, here’s the crucial information: of the schools polled, nearly 75% of them are either fully vaccinated or have at least 12 scholarship players fully vaccinated. (The math on this is trickier this year because, due to the bonus year of eligibility, roster sizes are not universal. Some teams are rostering two, three or even four players more than normal.) What’s more, some coaches told me that some of their players were either half-vaccinated at the time I posed this question or they were scheduled to be getting their first shot in the coming days/weeks. We’ve been polling coaches on this dating back to the middle of August, so the numbers have gone up and should continue to get better.

It’s possible that more than half the teams in college basketball (read: close to 200) will be fully vaccinated by the time the season arrives, and the number of teams with just one player holding out could make up for another 20 or 30% of the sport. All told, that’s a great ratio — and way better than the national average. 

But there are still coaches of NCAA Tournament-level teams who have a player or two of importance who haven’t yet gotten the jab. To think this issue won’t surface during the season is a fallacy. I didn’t speak to one coach who was iffy on getting vaccinated, and that was refreshing. Privately, there are a couple of head coaches who remain stupefied — if not furious — at some of their players for being uncompromising. A couple expect it to impact the locker room heading into the winter. 

But the big takeaway here is that the vaccination rates in men’s college basketball are pretty good. We didn’t hear from a single coach who had fewer than eight vaccinated players, and that alone should protect teams (barring virus mutations or a freakish instance of breakthrough cases on one roster) from having to forfeit games this season. And as for forfeiting games, we’ll cover that hotly debated topic in Candid Coaches on Wednesday. 

Previously in Candid Coaches:



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