Picture this: The Lakers and Nets meet in the NBA Finals in which Kyrie Irving can’t play at all because of each states law requiring athletes to be vaccinated to play indoors. At this very juncture, that would be the reality for the NBA and Irving. It would be a PR nightmare for the league and a black cloud hanging over the NBA Finals like no other. But this is where the league finds itself after years of being ahead of every social issue thrown its way.
The NBA had relied on science above all to lead the sports world through the Covid nightmare, from the league’s outbreak-driven shutdown to a pandemic-proof playoff bubble in Disney World to game after game with fans back in the stands. And it worked flawlessly, because you know; science.
But after two plagued seasons of non-stop nasal swabbing, quarantining and distrust, unvaccinated players are pushing back.
The unvaccinated players made their case to the players union, pleading to lighten up on the Covid protocols. They proposed there should be testing this year, of course, just not during off-days. They’d mask up on the court and on the road, if they must. But no way would they agree to a mandatory jab. The vaccine deniers had set the agenda; the players agreed to take their demands for personal freedom to the NBA’s negotiating table.
Two of America’s most progressive cities, New York and San Francisco, will require pro athletes to show proof of one Covid-19 vaccination dose to play indoors, except with an approved medical exemption. Which meant that one of the NBA’s biggest stars — one known for being receptive to conspiratorial beliefs — would be under heavy pressure to get a shot. And if Brooklyn Nets superstar Kyrie Irving could be convinced to take the vaccine, then maybe, just maybe, the whole league could create a new kind of bubble together.
A spokeswoman for Irving declined to respond to questions regarding his vaccination and playing status, but signs are leaning that he won’t be vaccinated by opening night in Brooklyn.
As teams return to pre-season training camps next week, 50-60 NBA players have yet to receive a single vaccine dose.
Irving, who serves as a vice president on the executive committee of the players’ union, recently started following and liking Instagram posts from a conspiracy theorist who claims that “secret societies” are implanting vaccines in a plot to connect Black people to a master computer for “a plan of Satan.” This Moderna microchip misinformation campaign has spread across multiple NBA locker rooms and group chats.
The league’s virus-hunters denied a religious-exemption request from a vaccine-denying player in San Francisco this weekend (Andrew Wiggins who will be forfeiting $15 million in salary this season), lighting a combustible mix of race, religion, class and clubbing in a time of Covid, aimed at some of the most influential role models in America.
General managers remain confident they can get superstars vaxxed by opening night. And in a concession to the Delta variant, all courtside players and personnel will be required to wear masks on arena benches and around practice facilities for the foreseeable future.
But like I said Irving isn’t the only player who isn’t vaccinated. At least his silence and cryptic posts are doing the talking as opposed to some of his NBA brothers who are simply out here talking to talk.
Jonathan Isaac, the Orland Magic’s forward, is known less by the average basketball fan for his play than for being that guy who stood up with his jersey on during the national anthem in the NBA bubble, while every other player on the court took a knee in a t-shirt declaring BLACK LIVES MATTER, amid a global reckoning on race and police killings. “I’m not going to sit here and point my fingers at one group of people.”
The 23-year-old starting forward is deeply religious — and proudly unvaccinated. When NBA players started lining up for shots in March, Isaac started studying Black history and watching Donald Trump’s press conferences. He learned about antibody resistance and came to distrust Dr. Anthony Fauci. He looked out for people who might die from the vaccine, and he put faith in God.
“At the end of the day, it’s people,” Isaac says of the scientists developing vaccines, “and you can’t always put your trust completely in people.”
Didn’t he trust “people” when he tore his ACL a year ago? The selectiveness is what gets me with these arguments from athletes.
Isaac considers un-vaxxed players to be vilified and he thinks “it’s an injustice” to automatically make heroes out of vaccinated celebrities. He rejects the NBA’s proposal for a vaccine mandate and social distancing for players like him during team travel:
“You can play on the same court. We can touch the same ball. We can bump chests. We can do all those things on the court. And then when it comes to being on the bus, we have to be in different parts of the bus? To me, it doesn’t seem logically consistent.
“If you are vaccinated, in other places you still have to wear the mask regardless. It’s like, ‘OK, then what is the mask necessarily for?’” Isaac continues. “And if Kyrie says that from his position of his executive power in the NBPA, then kudos to him.”
Enes Kanter — the veteran center, devout Muslim and outspoken liberal — senses a creep of the religious right upon his workplace, which just happens to involve players like Isaac sweating all over him and yelling in his face: “If a guy’s not getting vaccinated because of his religion, I feel like we are in a time where the religion and science has to go to together. I’ve talked to a lot of religious guys — I’m like: ‘It saves people’s lives, so what is more important than that?’”
Inside practice facilities next week, vaccinated players expect to spend time convincing skeptical players to avoid a competitive disadvantage. “If you’re a player and you’re not vaccinated and you miss a week or two weeks,” Kanter says, “it could literally change the whole season — and we’re trying to win a championship!”
The anti-vaxxers within the NBA have gotten the league to fall back on some of their covid protocol ideas, but NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar doesn’t want to hear anything from the anti-vaxxer crowd.
“The NBA should insist that all players and staff are vaccinated or remove them from the team,” NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said. “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. What I find especially disingenuous about the vaccine deniers is their arrogance at disbelieving immunology and other medical experts. Yet, if their child was sick or they themselves needed emergency medical treatment, how quickly would they do exactly what those same experts told them to do?”
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has been about this life for his entire life. Whether it has been fighting the war on race, religion, lgbtq rights and now on behalf of vaccines, Abdul-Jabbar has always been on the front lines.
The 74-year-old got his first Moderna shot on camera with Arnold Schwarzenegger. He appeared in an early public-service announcement for the vaccine on behalf of the NBA. And he’s been calling out anti-vax celebrities like Nicki Minaj from Twitter.
But the league continues to have difficulty convincing current superstars to advocate for vaccines: An NBA source says league officials could still ask LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo to appear in a PSA, but would never press the faces of its business to go there. As Black Americans continue to get vaccinated at a slower rate than any other race or ethnicity measured by the CDC, Abdul-Jabbar says that players who remain silent about the vaccine are no longer legitimate role models.
“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,” the Hall-of-Famer wrote in an e-mail. Abdul-Jabbar is especially disappointed in athletes of color: “By not encouraging their people to get the vaccine, they’re contributing to these deaths. I’m also concerned about how this perpetuates the stereotype of dumb jocks who are unable to look at verified scientific evidence and reach a rational conclusion.”
The NBA always seems to find the answers and resolve any issues, regardless of size and matter. But the remaining hold outs regarding the vaccine might be the most difficult situation the league finds themselves in. It is likely impossible to change anyones mind at this point so a civil war where the minority is more vocal than the majority could cause waves throughout the season.
This will be a season long storyline.