NBA struggles with vocal vaccine holdouts

The debate over COVID-19 vaccine mandates has spilled into the NBA, exposing divisions within the league over how to keep players safe from the fast-spreading virus.

While around 90 percent of NBA players are fully vaccinated — significantly higher than the U.S. vaccination rate — some of the league’s brightest stars are refusing to get the shot.

NBA stars have unleashed public criticisms of the vaccine, dealing a blow to the league’s image and revealing that even world-famous athletes can fall prey to increasingly common COVID-19 misinformation. 

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The NBA sought to require all players to get vaccinated for the upcoming season, but that sparked strong pushback from the National Basketball Players Association, which called a vaccine mandate a “non-starter.”

“A vaccine mandate for NBA players would need an agreement with the Players Association,” said NBA spokesperson Mike Bass in an email to The Hill on Tuesday. “The NBA has made these proposals, but the players’ union has rejected any vaccination requirement.”

Some of the union’s top representatives are reportedly unvaccinated, posing legal and financial problems for both the players and their teams.

Brooklyn Nets star Kyrie Irving, vice president of the union, reportedly has not been vaccinated. Unless he is given an exemption or gets vaccinated, Irving could miss all of Brooklyn’s home games so long as New York City’s indoor vaccine mandate is in place, potentially costing the team wins and forfeiting millions of dollars.

“Please respect my privacy,” Irving told reporters in a Zoom meeting Monday in response to questions about his vaccination status.

Irving recently liked Instagram posts from a user who claimed that vaccines implant microchips as part of “a plan of Satan,” a baseless conspiracy theory that has spread to other NBA locker rooms, according to Rolling Stone.

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Golden State Warriors forward Andrew Wiggins also stands to lose half of his salary by missing home games in San Francisco, which requires all individuals to provide proof of vaccination to attend large indoor events. Wiggins applied for a religious exemption for the COVID-19 vaccine but was denied by the NBA.

“And it’s my problem, not yours,” Wiggins told reporters Monday, adding that he was keeping his vaccination status private.

In the nation’s capital, Washington Wizards star Bradley Beal revealed this week that he is not vaccinated and questioned the vaccine’s effectiveness.

“I would like an explanation to people with vaccines: Why are they still getting COVID if that’s something that we are supposed to highly be protected from?” Beal told reporters on Monday. “It’s funny that it only reduces your chances of going to the hospital. It doesn’t eliminate anybody from getting COVID. Right?”

In a Twitter response to Beal, WNBA guard Natasha Cloud of the Washington Mystics noted that the vaccine “drastically decreases chances of death” and slows the number of new cases.

Orlando Magic forward Jonathan Isaac has emerged as a leading opponent of a vaccine mandate and restrictions on unvaccinated players.

Isaac, who made headlines last year for not participating with his team during national anthem protests amid backlash over police killings of Black Americans, has criticized Anthony FauciAnthony FauciAustralia reviewing reopening plans after reporting first omicron cases Biden to provide update Monday on US response to omicron variant Canada reports North America's first cases of omicron COVID-19 variant MORE, the nation’s top infectious diseases expert, and said vaccines cannot be trusted because they are man-made.

Such comments have sparked outrage from NBA legend and social justice icon Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who says the league should mandate vaccinations for all players.

“We have to educate ourselves so that we understand what is being offered,” Abdul-Jabbar told CNN on Monday. “These vaccines are safe and they are effective. And we have to fight this virus as a group. We can’t have certain people feeling, ‘Well, I don’t have to do that.’ That’s insanity.”

The small but vocal group of anti-vaccine voices in the league isn’t being drowned out by the NBA’s biggest stars, who have mostly taken a hands-off approach on vaccine advocacy.

Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James told reporters Tuesday that even though he decided to get vaccinated, he won’t use his platform to support vaccinations like he did to protest police brutality against Black Americans.

“We’re not talking about something political, or racism or police brutality,” James said. “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.”

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The hardened vaccine opposition from some NBA players underscores a difficult reality facing the nation: Most unvaccinated Americans are unlikely to change their minds. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll released Tuesday found that the majority of unvaccinated adults said they will “definitely not” get vaccinated or only get the shot if they’re required to.

The Biden administration is crafting a rule that will require all private employers with more than 100 workers to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations or frequent testing in an effort to boost the nation’s vaccination rate. The requirement won’t change much for the NBA, which already requires regular testing for unvaccinated players.

The NBA mandated vaccinations for all team personnel who work near the court, as well as referees, but it declined to require players to get the shot amid uproar from the players union. Unvaccinated players must undergo regular testing and wear a mask in team facilities. They’re also prohibited from sitting next to vaccinated teammates.

Despite no mandate, many teams report that 100 percent of their players are fully vaccinated, including the San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Lakers, Utah Jazz, Portland Trail Blazers, Houston Rockets, Charlotte Hornets and New York Knicks.

Some players have pushed back on the narrative that the league has an anti-vaccine problem. All-Star guard C.J. McCollum, president of the National Basketball Players Association, tweeted that “it’s important we don’t lose sight of the fact that 90 percent of the league is vaccinated.”

Several stars, including NBA Finals MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and All-Star guard Ja Morant, said they got vaccinated to protect their family.

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“I got vaccinated early ... I have a baby girl. I travel a lot. I can’t bring COVID back to her,” Morant told reporters Monday.

And the NBA has launched a series of pro-vaccination campaigns featuring notable players such as Milwaukee Bucks guard Jrue Holiday, Charlotte Hornets forward Gordon Hayward and Hall of Fame center Bill Russell. 

The NBA isn’t alone in falling short with vaccine mandates. None of the other four major U.S. professional sports leagues have required their players to get the shot. 

But the NFL has enacted tougher rules that require teams to forfeit a game if they are unable to play due to outbreaks caused by unvaccinated players. The league will also fine unvaccinated players if they violate the league’s COVID-19 protocols. As of September, 93 percent of NFL players have been vaccinated, the league said. 

Two professional sports leagues, MLB and the NHL, have player vaccination rates around 85 percent, according to NBC Sports; the NHL wants to reach 98 percent before the season starts in October. The MLB’s less stringent rules opt to relax restrictions on entire teams that reach the 85 percent vaccination rate.

In June, the WNBA became the first major North American professional sports league to announce that it reached near-total vaccination, with 99 percent of its players fully vaccinated.