National Basketball Association training camps are in full swing and 50 or so players (of about 530 total) have yet to receive a single COVID-19 vaccine dose. That’s an issue NBA executives and coaches were hoping to avoid.
This summer, league officials proposed a mandate requiring all players to be vaccinated against COVID in order to participate this season. The NBA players union said that was a “non-starter,” and the league caved.
The anti-vaxxers have a variety of reasons for not getting a jab in the arm, ranging from anxiety about getting a shot or two, to religious reasons, to wanting to exercise their freedoms, to bizarre conspiracy theories they’ve bought into.
The Brooklyn Nets’ Kyrie Irving, who serves as vice-president on the executive committee of the players’ union, is following – and liking – a conspiracy theory on Instagram that claims that “secret societies” are implanting vaccines as part of a plot to connect black people to a master computer for “a plan of Satan.”
This Moderna microchip misinformation story has spread across the league, according to multiple sources in, or near, the NBA.
If this is the type of ‘leadership’ NBA players are getting, it’s no wonder the league remains far from being fully vaccinated.
A number of NBA players are playing the religious exemption card despite major denominations being essentially unanimous in their support of COVID vaccines, according to a New York Times report.
Enes Kanter, a veteran centre for the Boston Celtics and a devout Muslim, doesn’t understand players avoiding the vaccine on religious grounds.
“If a guy’s not getting vaccinated because of his religion, I feel like we are in a time where the religion and science have to go together,” Kanter told Rolling Stone magazine. “I’ve talked to a lot of religious guys – I’m like: ‘It saves people’s lives, so what is more important than that?’”
NBA all-time great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has even stronger feelings than Kanter’s when it comes to anti-vaxxers.
“The NBA should insist that all players and staff are vaccinated or remove them from the team,” 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. 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?”
In terms of players simply wanting to exercise their ‘freedom’ to do whatever they want when it comes to COVID protocols, including masking and vaccinations, it must be remembered that freedoms of behaviour have always been balanced with what’s best for the common good. That’s why we have traffic lights, speed limits, laws against polluting water and no-smoking areas in public places, among other things.
Freedom of belief is much different than freedom of behaviour.
This is a public health issue, above all else. More than 700,000 Americans and 28,000 Canadians have died from COVID. A significant percentage of those deaths likely could have been avoided if the vast majority of North Americans had become fully vaccinated as soon as the vaccines became available on a large-scale basis.
Others survived COVID but are now long-haulers, having to deal with long-term COVID-based health issues. Many of those cases could also have been avoided.
But people like Irving don’t seem to understand how their refusal to get vaccinated puts teammates, coaches and fans at risk. They also don’t seem to understand that their refusal to get jabbed prolongs the pandemic, which means prolonging things like quarantines, masking, tests, physical separation, etc. All things that everyone, vaxxers and anti-vaxxers alike, would love to see go away.
Basketball, like life, is a team game. Anti-vaxxers – whether elite hoopsters or everyday Joes and JoAnns – don’t seem to grasp that. They’re choosing to be selfish in a team environment and putting their opinions above the health of others.
To finally get a handle on this pandemic, we need a lot more ‘we’ people than ‘me’ people – in the NBA and everywhere else.
Navy Vietnam veteran John Ziegler nailed it: “I feel it’s doing my duty. The more we get vaccinated, the sooner we can get back to doing what we want to do. We have to take care of each other. That’s what life is about.”
Ken Reed is sports policy director for League of Fans (leagueoffans.org), a sports reform project. He is the author of The Sports Reformers, Ego vs. Soul in Sports, and How We Can Save Sports. For interview requests, click here.
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