Photograph: Frank Franklin II/AP
In October 2020, more than a month before the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines would receive emergency-use authorization from the FDA, the Women’s National Basketball Players Association got to work.
The WNBPA understood that misinformation in regards to the virus and vaccine had been ramping up, and it seemed to be getting harder and harder to seek reliable guidance. They also likely considered that professional athletes represented a relatively easy target for misinformation and conspiracy theories as highly impressionable young people with a lot of free time on their hands – time often spent on their phones scrolling social media – and relatively little contact with the outside world. So they came together with league commissioner Cathy Engelbert and set out a plan to educate WNBA players about the Covid-19 vaccine so that they could make educated choices when the time came.
The WNBA’s players’ union put together an outreach program separate from the league itself, understanding that players would be more trusting of other players than they would be the league front office or even those in charge of their teams. The WNBPA canvassed the league for their questions about the vaccine and brought in experts to answer those questions over Zoom without judgment. And they did all of this before shots were actually readily available.
“It’s much easier to encourage vaccination if people start from a point of uncertainty rather than a place where they have already made up their minds against it,” says Harvard health policy professor Robert Blendon.
Adds Atlanta Dream forward Elizabeth Williams, who originally brought the idea to the WNBPA: “I think [the player-led approach] was what made players comfortable, to be honest. If the league were to mandate it and we didn’t feel like we knew enough about it, I don’t think people would have gotten vaccinated. But because as player leadership, we were saying, ‘Hey, here’s an opportunity to ask all these questions and not feel bad about it’ – I think that was kind of what made people feel more comfortable, not feeling that extra level of pressure.
It worked. Ninety-nine percent of the WNBA’s players are currently vaccinated, the most of any professional sports league in North America.
Fast forward almost exactly one year later to the NBA’s media day on Monday marking the start of the 2021-22 season, when 90% of the league was fully vaccinated – it has since climbed to 95% who have gotten at least their first shot – a far higher percentage than the rest of the United States but along the same lines of their economic peers and lower than the WNBA and even the NFL. As usual, the vocal minority took center stage.
Much of the focus was on Andrew Wiggins and Kyrie Irving – stars both and, in Irving’s case, vice president on the executive committee of the players’ union – who play in markets that require them to be vaccinated in order to play or practice at home this season and who stand to lose tens of millions of dollars if they don’t. But the NBA’s vaccine problem extends beyond a couple of high-profile holdouts: the league and the players’ union were not prepared for just how important and divisive a political issue vaccines have become over the past year, and they failed in their responsibility to get out ahead of it. Instead of being leaders on the vaccine issue like the WNBA was – and like the NBA was when it came to the Black Lives Matter protests last year – the NBA waited too long to figure out just how polarized the league was on the topic.
Health and hygiene protocols are displayed on the Staples Center during an NBA game between the LA Clippers and the Lakers earlier this year. Photograph: Kirby Lee/USA Today Sports
Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal said he “didn’t get sick at all” after contracting coronavirus in July, making him miss the chance to represent Team USA at the Tokyo Olympics. “I lost my smell. That’s it.”
“People with vaccines, why are they still getting Covid?… Like, it’s funny that, ‘Oh, it reduces your chances of going to the hospital.’ It doesn’t eliminate anybody from getting COVID, right? Some people have bad reactions to the vaccine. Nobody likes to talk about that. What happens if one of our players gets the vaccine and can’t play after that? Or they have complications after that? Because there are cases like that.”
Jonathan Isaac, a religious man who plays for the Orlando Magic, said: “At the end of the day, it’s people [developing vaccines], and you can’t always put your trust completely in people.”
And Denver Nuggets wing Michael Porter J said: “For me, I had Covid twice, I saw how my body reacted, and although the chances are slim, with the vaccine, there’s a chance you could have a bad reaction to it. For me, I don’t feel comfortable.
“If you want to get it because you feel more protected and you feel safer, and it’s protecting people around you, get it. That’s good for you. But if you feel like, ‘Oh, for me, I don’t feel safe getting it, then don’t get it.’”
Forget that there are no publicly known cases of professional basketball players missing time because of side effects related to the vaccine, and severe side effects are rare for anyone. And remember that some athletes have spoken about lingering respiratory and muscle issues after contracting Covid-19, with Boston Celtics star Jayson Tatum suffering lingering impairment for months after contracting the virus last season, requiring the use of an inhaler before games to help his breathing long after he recovered. Also, forget that these vaccine holdouts are ignoring a crucial reason to get the vaccine, which is to protect others.
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What’s more important is that the NBA waited just long enough for some of its star players to irresponsibly contribute to the very reason that the NBA and American society are in this predicament in the first place: the misinformation crisis. And that is the bigger issue here: not the fact that Wiggins and Irving might be willing to sit out 41 home games instead of getting the vaccine, but the fact that the NBA let it get to a point where influential NBA players are broadcasting vaccine skepticism and misinformation to a highly vulnerable American public.
It was recently reported that a Moderna microchip misinformation campaign has spread across multiple NBA locker rooms and group chats, though it is unclear just how prevalent it is considering that 95% of the league is now vaccinated, up from 85% just a few weeks ago. But what is clear is that some NBA players used media day to spread misinformation and, with support from Republicans like Ted Cruz and ESPN turned Fox News pundit Will Cain, this is problematic, because even if their views don’t spread throughout NBA locker rooms, they will influence society; that is simply the territory that comes with being professional athletes, especially ones in the most politically relevant sports league in the United States.
Now people are calling on LA Lakers star LeBron James to call out anti-vaxxers, as he wields the biggest influence of any voice in the league. They are calling out Wiggins and Irving for refusing to acknowledge that pandemics are inherently public, and that what they call “individual decisions” matter to other people when it comes to the vaccine. But these are inherently reactionary solutions that fail to get to the heart of the issue, which is education and the mitigation of misinformation.
Related: LeBron James was ‘very skeptical’ about Covid vaccine before changing mind
“They are failing to live up to the responsibilities that come with celebrity. Athletes are under no obligation to be spokespersons for the government, but this is a matter of public health,” NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said about the vaccine holdouts. He is especially disappointed in athletes of color, saying: “By not encouraging their people to get the vaccine, they’re contributing to these deaths.”
Yes, star players like LeBron should encourage the brotherhood that is the NBA to get vaccinated in order to protect themselves and others. But it will take a much more concerted effort on behalf of the league and its players association to mitigate the damage that has already been done and to properly educate its vaccine holdouts before it is too late. The fact that we have seen nothing similar to the WNBA’s player-led vaccine outreach program in the NBA is disappointing, but there is still a huge opportunity for the NBA players’ union to create an educational vaccine program for the players and public alike.
“If Black Lives Matter is what we’re about, then in the public health space, this is really big for Black and brown communities,” executive director of the WNBA players union, Terri Jackson, says of the message sent by the WNBPA, citing the fact that Black Americans have been disproportionately hospitalized with and died from Covid-19. They also continue to get vaccinated at a slower rate than any other race or ethnicity measured by the CDC. “We better be informed, and we better be ready to show up.”
The NBA was not informed, and they were not ready to show up. Instead of blaming others for the vaccine crisis on hand, they should probably take a long look in the mirror and get to work, because nobody else is going to solve this problem for them.