The NBA is about to begin its third COVID-laden season. For many Americans, the threat of COVID-19 first became apparent when the NBA suspended their season back in March 2020. Rudy Gobert, a player for the Utah Jazz at the time, touched a bunch of microphones to demonstrate that he considered the pandemic to be silly. Days later karma hit him when he became the first NBA player to test positive for the virus (CBS Sports, 2020).
After the quarantine period, the NBA was one of the first leagues to return. Despite a few obstacles, the conclusion of the season served as a beacon of hope and an example of how to continue doing some normal things with the right precautions. This past year, there was a more normal NBA season, albeit with some notable differences such as limited fan presence, frequent testing and all other standard protocols such as contact tracing (CBS Sports, 2020).
With the next NBA season around the corner, COVID-19 still looms, but the main concerns around the pandemic have shifted. In the first half of 2020 the story centered on the shutdown; in the second half of 2020 and the first half of 2021, the story focused on protocols the NBA had in place and the question of whether the season could be successful. Now, in late 2021, the hot-button issue is vaccines.
Like the country as a whole, the NBA has a lot of fully-vaccinated players. Also like the rest of the country, the NBA has a number of unvaccinated players (CBS Sports, 2021).
The NBA Players Union did not agree to a vaccine mandate, meaning the NBA cannot require players to be vaccinated. However, some cities are requiring vaccinations for anyone who wants to participate in events held at indoor arenas. Namely, New York and San Francisco, the homes of the Brooklyn Nets, New York Knicks and Golden State Warriors, are not allowing people to attend or participate in games held in indoor arenas unless they are vaccinated. This means that unvaccinated players on the Knicks, Nets and Warriors could miss half the season (all their team’s home games). The NBA has said that teams do not have to pay players who cannot participate in games due to their vaccination status, meaning that an unvaccinated player who has a game in one of these cities, be it a home or away game, will not get paid for it, meaning some players stand to lose as much as half of their salary (The New York Times, 2021).
I personally believe that this is great news, as these stipulations ultimately require players to get the vaccine or face the consequences. I have said it before and I will say it again: you have a right to make your own decisions, but stupidity should have consequences.
Yet, these rules only apply to three NBA teams as of right now. On top of that, there are still players who won’t get vaccinated in these very cities. Nets guard Kyrie Irving, best known for hitting a championship-sealing three-pointer alongside Lebron James when he played for the Cleveland Cavaliers, and for saying that the earth was flat (ESPN, 2018), has still not publicly committed to getting the vaccine, even after the announcement of these rules that would prevent him from playing any games in Brooklyn. “I would like to keep all that private…please just respect my privacy,” he said at a digital news conference (The New York Times, 2021). But his aunt, Tyki Irving, made it pretty clear that he wasn’t vaccinated and told Rolling Stone that her nephew and other NBA players might be able to work out some kind of agreement where they play in some games and miss others (Rolling Stone, 2021).
I sincerely hope not. I believe Kyrie Irving deserves to miss half of his team’s games and lose half of his salary if he wants to stay unvaccinated. Stupidity should have consequences. We can only hope that this type of rule will extend to more cities, forcing the NBA to institute a vaccine mandate for NBA players.
But even more baffling than players still refusing the vaccine under these circumstances is that they aren’t receiving condemnation from their coaches or teammates. Andrew Wiggins, a Warrior, has not received the vaccine and was recently denied a request for a religious exemption. While the organization has supported him, their failure to simultaneously promote vaccinations has stood out. Teammate Andre Iguodala said, “I’m vaccinated and I have an understanding about [COVID-19], and he has a different understanding, but his understanding is something that I truly respect, and I have a value for how he sees life. He’s the type of guy that I support the whole way. Hopefully we can find a solution.” Other teammates such as Steph Curry expressed a similar sentiment and Head Coach Steve Kerr proclaimed, “I haven’t spent any time thinking about that. Nor will I” (CBS Sports, 2021). But all of this illustrates a problem the NBA has had with vaccines from the beginning: silence.
Even among the players that are vaccinated, many are not willing to admit it (The New York Times, 2021). A famous example is Chris Paul, who tested positive for COVID-19 during the NBA playoffs and thus missed a couple games. Paul was in fact vaccinated, yet speculation ran rampant for a while regarding his vaccination status because he refused to publicly acknowledge that he was vaccinated; his status had to be uncovered through investigative reporting (The Atlantic, 2021). Additionally, Lebron James, a leading voice for social justice in both the NBA and the country, just admitted that he was vaccinated in an interview on Sept. 28. When he was asked back in May about his vaccination status, he refused to disclose it, saying, “It’s not a big deal,” (CNN, 2021; NBC News, 2020).
It is time for the NBA to do what they did when this all started: lay down the law. Not every NBA player was stoked about the bubble for the 2020 playoffs, but the NBA pushed forward, implementing strict rules, and in response some players opted not to play. The NBA needs similarly strict regulations when it comes to vaccines.The Players Union needs to get their act together and agree to a vaccine mandate, which would be best for NBA players as a whole. If some players still don’t want to be vaccinated, that is fine. It is their choice, and they will have to accept that their playing days are over.