The NBPA needs to step in and save NBA anti-vaxxers from themselves

Brooklyn Nets' Kyrie Irving (11) celebrates after making a 3-point basket during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the New York Knicks Monday, April 5, 2021, in New York. (Frank Franklin II/AP)

By now, you’ve either read the Rolling Stone article “NBA’s Anti-Vaxxers Are Trying to Push Around the League — And It’s Working” or heard of its fallout during NBA media day earlier this week.

Due to local regulations, unvaccinated players in New York and San Francisco won’t be able to play or practice at home. This has largely been positioned as a player versus league scenario but, in fact, the NBA league office is limited in its scope because their entire relationship with the players is collectively bargained, and this scenario is unprecedented. It’s not as binary as unvaccinated players versus the commissioner’s office or even the government. The real onus is on the NBA Players’ Association to protect their members from COVID-19 and, in some cases, from themselves.

The NBA has been at the forefront of several social conversations recently including the one surrounding the Me Too movement, and the racial reckoning spearheaded by Black Lives Matter. Many first took COVID-19 seriously when the league shut down in 2020, and now in 2021 vaccine hesitancy is the hot stove conversation and, once again, the NBA looks to be a mirror being held up to society.

Vaccine hesitancy, especially in the Black community, is real and understandable.
The Tuskegee experiment, which began in 1932, allowed syphilis to go untreated in Black men without their consent for decades.

It’s a trauma that’s passed on from generation and adds to the lack of trust with the medical community.

But in this case, we don’t know exactly what these players believe or are afraid of.

One constant we’ve heard from reluctant players is it’s a “private matter,” but it’s not a private matter if you can’t play in home games.

There is no such thing as a private matter in a public health crisis. Your private decisions determine what you are allowed to do in public. That’s what it means to be in a global pandemic.

There has always been limited access to portions of society if you aren’t vaccinated. These players know this as they all had to be vaccinated to attend public school. The first hurdle to enrolling your child in daycare or elementary school is providing proof of your child’s youth vaccinations. Of course, if you don’t want to vaccinate your kid, you can home school your child, but that’s where your rights stop.

New Golden State Warrior Avery Bradley didn’t play in the bubble because of the risk to his kids if he brought home COVID. So why should he have to share a locker room with Andrew Wiggins and increase the risk to himself and his family higher than it has to be?

As well, why should team trainers and therapists have to be in close contact to players who aren’t vaccinated?

We’ve framed this discussion around the rights of unvaccinated players but where do those rights end and the rights for everyone else who is doing their part to end this pandemic by being vaccinated begin?

You have the right not to get vaccinated, but you don’t have the right to work in a field where that is an issue, and you certainly don’t have the right to put other players and staff members in jeopardy.

“Any player who elects not to comply with local vaccination mandates will not be paid for games that he misses,” NBA spokesperson Mike Bass said in a statement to reporters Wednesday. Kyrie Irving makes more than $400,000 per game.

How much the league will put up with and the NBPA will allow will be related to how much this impacts the bottom line.

Irving missed a quarter of the Nets games last season and 72 per cent the year before that. If he’s good enough to be worth keeping and not having him available for practice or games in New York that’s one thing, but nobody is valuable enough to expose other people to a potentially deadly virus.

It’s easy to mock Irving as a flat earther, but this stance is more dangerous and less funny, particularly because he’s vice president on the executive committee of the players’ union.

The players’ union is supposed to work in the best interests of the majority of their membership and, well, the vast majority of their membership is vaccinated.

The percentage of players vaccinated is higher than the nationwide average in Canada and the U.S. at 90 per cent. It’s hard to get 90 per cent of people to agree on anything.

I’m generally pro-player empowerment and I don’t think players should do anything just because the league says so, but this is the players as citizens being asked by their government and medical communities to do so, meaning this should be taken out of the league’s hands.

Local authorities should be weighing in, as they do in any other industry. There should be no exemption for unvaccinated players in any market. What sense does it make that in most NBA markets you need to be fully vaccinated to go watch a game indoors but don’t have to be to play in one?

The PA has to step in because there’s no consistency from market to market — something that will continue to be the case as health protocols are strengthened and relaxed throughout the fourth wave and into flu season.

There are strict rules for players who aren’t vaccinated no matter their jurisdiction. Unvaccinated players are prohibited from dining indoors in the same room as any other player or Tier 1 personnel, and are required to maintain at least six feet from anyone as well as to be wearing a mask and are required to be given a locker that is as distant from other players as possible and not next to another non-fully vaccinated player.

If the virus is serious enough to basically ostracize unvaccinated players within their own facility you probably should just take the next step and remove them altogether.

Where the government has failed to draw a line in the sand and lead on this, the players’ union should step in. They are prioritizing the rights of a small percentage of their membership over the safety of the vast majority.

Something that former players are saying for the majority of current players.

“The NBA should insist that all players and staff are vaccinated or remove them from the team,” Kareem Abdul-Jabbar told Rolling Stone. “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.”

Via the teams, the league and the PA, the players have access to the best doctors and epidemiologists in the world. If they want to claim to know better than scientists and be more informed than researchers that’s fine, but that means they need to deal with the consequences and sacrifice their pay and ability to play and not ask the rest of the league to accommodate them.

2,000 people a day are dying in the U.S. They have access to the vaccine unlike many other parts of the world.

We all have an uncertain future because the vocal minority is trying to drag us back into the dark ages before medicine and science were readily available.

It’s a pandemic. The choice should be clear: make sacrifices for everyone else or stay at home.

As influencers, it’s even more important they lead by example and hold each other accountable. And that starts with the NBPA.

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