covid vaccine

What NBA Players Owe Each Other

The Nets guard Kyrie Irving is one of the NBA’s most prominent vaccine skeptics. Photo: Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images

I have a friend who worked for an NBA team that went to the bubble last summer. He wasn’t a big shot or anything, but they gave him his own hotel room at Disney World, and whenever he got bored he’d text me about how weird everything was. Like waiting for the elevator and seeing the doors open to reveal all six feet and 11 inches of the Greek Freak, Giannis Antetokounmpo. “Going down?” They rode to the swimming pool together and passed a sunbathing Nikola Jokic, the Denver Nuggets’ big man. The health and safety protocols were as strict as you’d imagine. The staff who cleaned their rooms every couple of days wore face masks and face guards. He had to wear a mask everywhere, and everyone got tested for COVID-19 daily, no exceptions. New arrivals were quarantined for a week before they could see anyone.

What my friend was telling me, in so many words, was that the bubble was the most fussily guarded place in Orlando, and maybe the country, to wait out the pandemic — a monument to risk calculation, willed into existence by a league that knew anything less meant hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue. The bubble also entailed a compromise with the players. Back when they were negotiating with the NBA about how to continue their COVID-interrupted basketball season, union leaders insisted on a condition: that when they were in the bubble, they could still engage with that summer’s protests against police brutality.

What this engagement looked like was negotiated just as cautiously. Its most visible features, in the beginning, were the messages players wore on their jerseys instead of their last names — phrases from “Black Lives Matter” to the more anodyne “Group Economics.” For a hot minute, the players’ participation in the protests grew into something more radical. The Milwaukee Bucks led a wildcat strike in the name of Jacob Blake, a Black man shot by cops in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and it took days to get them and the rest of the teams to start playing again. They’d agreed only after someone got Barack Obama on the phone, and a handful of  arenas were made available as voting centers.

There were times when the NBA’s involvement looked momentous, but mostly it looked safe, an order of magnitude removed from the turmoil in the streets — a level of insulation that, for some players, caused its share of psychic anguish. Kyrie Irving, the idiosyncratic Brooklyn Nets guard, led a push to pop the bubble before anybody even got there. He hosted a call between some fellow NBA players and John Carlos, the athlete-activist famous for raising a black-gloved fist at the 1968 Olympics, to float the idea that a season restart was inappropriate. Irving had undergone season-ending surgery, so he wouldn’t have played in the bubble either way. But the point of his call was to impress on others that something bigger than basketball was available to them, something riskier and more fraught, but that better fulfilled the sense of social responsibility that was gnawing at them.

The bubble survived his effort, but another test was around the corner. The eve of the 2021-22 season brought a COVID-19 vaccine. What would a similar negotiation between social responsibility and personal risk look like this time?

As it turns out, so far, pretty good. Ninety percent of NBA players are vaccinated, well above the national rate of 55 percent, and for almost every high-profile hooper who says they’re skeptical about or opposed to getting the shot, there’s an equally famous player talking openly about why they decided it was a good idea. This is despite the National Basketball Players Association insisting that its union members should not be bound by a vaccine mandate, the compact that binds all other team personnel who work on or near the court.

But the opposition is still loud, whether it takes the form of ill-considered justifications or deafening silence when pressed to elaborate on their vaccine status, and even the pro-vaxxers have been willing to chalk this divide up to personal reasons best arrived at privately.

At a time of collective emergency, self-inclination rules the day. “Personal reasons,” said the Washington Wizards’ Bradley Beal of his initial refusal to get vaccinated, adding, “I would ask the question to those who are getting vaccinated, ‘Why are you still getting COVID?’” (Beal seems to have since changed his stance from a hard “no” to “undecided.”) “It’s none of your business,” said the Golden State Warriors’ Andrew Wiggins when asked to explain which of his “beliefs” he’d be violating if he got the shot. (Wiggins recently applied for a religious exemption from San Francisco’s vaccination requirement for large indoor events, including Warriors basketball games. His petition was denied.) “I would like to keep all that private,” said Irving when asked if he’d gotten the vaccine. (The Nets star’s aunt told Rolling Stone that his decision is “not religious-based, it’s moral-based,” though it’s unclear if that accurately reflects her nephew’s vaccination status or his views.)

The least-known player in this cohort is the Orlando Magic’s Jonathan Issac, which hasn’t stopped him from being the most vocal. “[It] is my belief that the vaccine status of every person should be their own choice,” he said this week. “Completely up to them without bullying, without being pressured, without being forced into doing so.” Isaac’s concern, he says, is that he’s had COVID before and developed antibodies, so it might be more dangerous for him to risk an “adverse reaction” to the shot than to contract the virus again, an argument that isn’t supported by the scientific consensus.

The overwhelming response to these men from their peers has been respectful acquiescence. “Everyone has their own choice to do what they feel is right for themselves and their family,” said LeBron James, who is vaccinated, during the Los Angeles Lakers’ media day on Tuesday. “We’re talking about individuals’ bodies,” he went on, when a reporter pressed him on whether he felt responsible to urge others to follow his lead. “We’re not talking about something that’s political, or racism, or police brutality, or things of that nature.”

Needless to say, this isn’t true, and is no more how mass vaccination works than it is how protest movements against injustice do. Both are collective efforts that put society-level considerations over individual ones. The barometer of one’s commitment to either, traditionally, has been whether you’re willing to risk your body, to make it vulnerable, in order to help others. Distance from that risk made some players feel too uninvolved in last summer’s struggles. There they were, safe in a bubble while America burned, and it inspired many of them to make unprecedented demands of their employers, and of each other, in the name of collective responsibility. That sense of responsibility eludes some now when it comes to vaccines, a position that even their vaccinated peers think comes from valid reasoning — the notion that, ultimately, everyone has to do what they think is best for them.

Foregoing the vaccine is a miscalculation of risk, but it comes from the same model of risk assessment that made it so easy to turn a wildcat strike into a few new ballot boxes, and to keep players quiet about human-rights abuses in China, their main source of international revenue, while the league turned their outspokenness about racist policing into an advertising blitz. The social impact that players say they want to have requires principles beyond their personal interests. “At the end of the day, you’re always trying to figure out ways that you can be available, and protect one another,” James said when explaining why he chose to get vaccinated, and it really can be that simple.

What NBA Players Owe Each Other