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NBA Players’ Personal Decisions on Vaccination End at Tipoff

Some players have cited personal reasons to explain why they’ve declined COVID vaccines. But when the games begin, their decisions cross over from personal choices to a matter of public health.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Credit to CJ McCollum, forever a journalism student, for trying to ensure that we don’t bury the lede.

Two weeks ago, an NBA spokesperson told ESPN’s Baxter Holmes and Adrian Wojnarowski that “roughly 85 percent” of NBA players were vaccinated. But as McCollum, the new players union president, reported, and NBPA executive director Michele Roberts confirmed, that number is now seemingly closer to 90 percent.

Six teams have reportedly already reached 100 percent vaccination rates among their player populations. Five more reportedly expect to reach that goal by opening night. It’s not the 99 percent rate achieved by the perpetual standard-bearers in the WNBA, but in a nation where only 65 percent of those eligible are fully vaccinated, a 9-out-of-10-and-rising rate among NBA players seems like cause for celebration—especially considering a number of high-profile superstars have come forward to share their rationale for getting the shots. Like reigning NBA champion and Finals MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo:

And Damian Lillard:

And Anthony Davis:

And, perhaps most notably of all, LeBron James, whose hesitance made waves in the spring, but who said Tuesday he grew comfortable enough with the vaccine to proceed:

Even in the absence of a mandate, the lion’s share of players have gotten vaccinated. But the bold-faced takeaway had less to do with which players had taken the vaccine and more with the ones who hadn’t—or, just as notably, who preferred not to say whether they had.

In every NBA market on Monday, you heard the phrase: It’s a personal choice. It’s a personal decision. Maybe it was a players union talking point; maybe it was the byproduct of a broader societal context in which it’s hard to blame any Black person who might struggle to trust any institution at this stage in American history; maybe it’s both. Either way, it’s also, you know, true—insofar as every decision a person makes is a personal decision, with ramifications for that person.

The thing about a pandemic caused by the spread of an airborne virus, though, is that those personal choices also become matters of public health, with repercussions that ripple out, potentially affecting a host of other people—other players, coaches, trainers, team staff, their families, their friends, and countless others—beyond just that one person making one personal choice.

And while players like Bradley Beal and Jonathan Isaac have expressed skepticism about the efficacy of the vaccine in preventing COVID infection, reducing the severity of the damage an infection can do, or limiting the transmission of the coronavirus to others—concerns for which, if you’re interested, there are answers—those repercussions aren’t merely a matter of philosophical positioning or debate. They extend in a material way to the game—the actual thing on the court, where dudes dribble and shoot and keep score and stuff. Less so, perhaps, for players like Beal and Isaac, who play in cities without a mandate to be vaccinated to participate in indoor activities like performing at professional sports arenas (though they will likely face more stringent protocols than vaccinated players). For players on teams that do have city-imposed mandates, though, it could matter a whole hell of a lot.

Kyrie Irving didn’t attend the Nets’ media session on Monday “because of New York City’s COVID-19 protocols,” according to Zach Lowe and Brian Windhorst of ESPN, referring to the executive order issued in August by Mayor Bill de Blasio requiring athletes who play in indoor arenas to show proof that they’ve received at least one vaccine shot. Irving did, however, appear via Zoom, saying that “obviously I’m not able to be present there today.” He repeatedly declined to clarify whether or not the reason is, as Yaron Weitzman of Fox Sports reported last week, Irving remains unvaccinated.


“I appreciate your question, but honestly, I like to keep that stuff private,” Irving told reporters on Monday. “I’m a human being first, and obviously, living in this public sphere, there’s just a lot of questions about what’s going on in the world of Kyrie, and I just would love to just keep that private and handle it the right way with my team and go forward together with a plan.”

There are a lot of questions about what’s going on in the world of Kyrie, due partly to the fact that he is incredibly good at basketball, and also because he won’t be allowed to deploy those incredible playmaking talents at Brooklyn’s home games unless he’s vaccinated. (Irving is also a vice president on the executive committee of the Players Association, giving his status and his communication regarding the vaccine an extra resonance.) Add in the Nets’ road games against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden, also covered by New York’s executive order, and the Warriors at Chase Center in San Francisco, which is governed by a similar vaccine mandate, and refusing to get vaccinated would stand to cost Irving as many as 44 games this season. For a team that enters training camp as the odds-on favorite to win the 2022 NBA championship, that’s a fairly sizable issue—one that tends to prompt more than a few inquiries.

“Again, I would like to keep all that private,” Irving told reporters. “Please just respect my privacy. Like, at all the questions kind of leading into what’s happening, you know, just, please, everything will be released at a new date, once we get this cleared up. But as of right now, just please respect my privacy regarding anything on home games, what’s happening, vaccination. Please.”

Players like Irving and Kyle Kuzma can certainly invoke their right to privacy for now, just as Andrew Wiggins—who remains unvaccinated, whose request for a religious exemption to San Francisco’s public order was denied last week, and who’s in line to miss Warriors home games if he doesn’t get the shot—can continue to insist that he will “keep fighting for what I believe,” even though his “back is definitely against the wall.”

“It’s my problem,” Wiggins responded when asked about the nearly $9 million in salary he’d stand to forfeit by missing Warriors home games. “Not yours.”

It’s true that Wiggins’s pockets are Wiggins’s problem. That’s not where the problems end, though; the starting small forward on a team with championship aspirations consciously halving his prospective availability would be, as Warriors leader Stephen Curry on Monday tersely proclaimed, “not ideal.” Nor would Irving—who swore Monday that “the last thing I wanted to create was more distractions and more hoopla and more drama around this”—opting out of more than half the season for a team widely projected to be the best in the East, with the inside track on the championship that he and Kevin Durant came to Brooklyn to secure together.

“League sources believe Irving will wind up taking the vaccine,” according to Vincent Goodwill of Yahoo Sports, “citing influence from his close friend and teammate Kevin Durant.” Beal’s leaving open the possibility. Wiggins? Well, Warriors GM Bob Myers says the team is “optimistic that we’ll have our full complement of players” come the start of the season, so, TBD. Isaac, and the rest of the “nearly 40”? We’ll see, and soon, because opening night is less than three weeks away. And when the games start counting, the requests for respect of privacy and the right to keep kicking the can down the road will necessarily meet a hard and fast endpoint.