Where the NBA and its players' union are failing on COVID-19

Why should a few anti-vaxxers and vaccine skeptics set the vaccination policies and narrative of the league?

Good morning. Let’s basketball.

The Voice/Summer Night, Edvard Munch, 1896

Matt Sullivan, who wrote a book about the new-age Brooklyn Nets*, has a story out in Rolling Stone on the anti-vaccination and vaccine skeptic forces within the NBA. Kyrie Irving plays a central role in Sullivan’s narrative, though it’s not entirely clear why at this point. Sullivan describes how the players’ union — which is roughly 90% vaccinated at this point — shot down a league push to mandate vaccines for all players. Orlando’s Jonathan Isaac plays a key role too, and it’s clear why: he straight-up parrots some of the worst anti-vax rhetoric on the record to Sullivan.

The Kyrie stuff is, obviously, getting more attention. Because it’s Kyrie.

[As] teams return to pre-season training camps next week, fifty to sixty NBA players have yet to receive a single vaccine dose, league sources tell RS. Most are considered merely reluctant skeptics. Some of the holdouts, however, amount to their own shadow roster of anti-vaxxers mounting a behind-the-scenes resistance to Covid protocols — and the truth.

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, according to several of the dozen-plus current players, Hall-of-Famers, league executives, arena workers and virologists interviewed for this story over the past week.

The sourcing on Irving’s Instagram activity is pretty rough. Sullivan says Kyrie is following and liking posts from a person peddling misinformation. Kyrie isn’t at this point sharing it. But the rumors of Kyrie’s stance — backed up with on-the-record quotes from his aunt, who sits on the board of his foundation — seem to point which way this all might be headed.

Regardless of the particulars of Kyrie’s social media habits, the anti-vaxxers and vaccine skeptics in the league have convinced enough vaccinated colleagues to stand with them and reject a mandate. Shame on all of them. Shame on the members of the players’ union executive board for not putting more pressure on Kyrie, Isaac, Andrew Wiggins and whoever else to do what every NBA coach, trainer, referee and other close-contact employee has to do. Shame on them for not doing what fans in several arenas around the NBA will have to do. Shame on them for not agreeing to do what teachers, healthcare workers, members of the military and federal employees have to do.

And mostly, shame on Adam Silver for refusing to be brave enough to stand up to the 40-50 NBA players who are unvaccinated. That the NBA is at 90% vaccination is a triumph, in some ways, given the age and demographics of the player base. And instead of making the push to get closer to 100%, instead of boldly demanded that all players vaccinate or sit for this season, and daring the 90% vaccinated players’ union to push back, the narrative of Silver’s league is apparently being commandeered by misinformation on the eve of training camp. The NBA seems completely flat-footed in responding to it, among the player base and the wider audience (which is much less than 90% vaccinated).

What’s the downside of being aggressive here? “No, this isn’t a matter for bargaining, this is a public health issue and we will be mandating vaccination for everyone involved in our business with medical exemptions signed off by the league’s doctors only.” If it’s still a fight, at least it’s a fight that will further expose the sheer lack of logic in the anti-vax crusaders. At least the NBA will be providing a prominent affirmative message in favor of vaccination, beyond the PSAs with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell and other retired legends getting jabbed.

The NBA already missed its chance to have a player-led, conspiracy-rebutting campaign … like the one the WNBA used to successfully get to 99% vaccinated. Most active NBA stars have been rather pathetic in playing footsie with the vaccine instead of full-throated endorsement. No wonder some of their teammates are applying for religious exemptions. (Can you get religious exemptions from paying taxes or going the speed limit?)

Kyrie’s aunt is quoted in Sullivan’s piece and seems to indicate that instead of showing up to media day on Monday, Irving instead may make some statements bashing the vaccine and Dr. Anthony Fauci. We’ll see. Believing you know what Kyrie is going to do is a dangerous game. And maybe Kyrie theoretically would have done that even if Silver had fought harder for a vaccine mandate and gotten the players’ union on board. Maybe Kyrie would be even louder about it. But what’s worse — loudly arguing with someone who is wrong and who the vast majority of your audience agrees is wrong? (65% of eligible Americans have received a vaccine, and a majority support workplace mandates.) Or letting a bully have the floor to themself?

At minimum, if Irving does actually make anti-vax statements on Monday, Adam Silver and hopefully a couple of high-profile NBA superstars had better be on national T.V. pushing back immediately. If Isaac’s comments get steam, the NBA and its players had better push back lest they let some vaccine-eligible skeptics start believing the misinformation. You’ve let the COVID crew win the vaccine mandate battle within the league, don’t let them win the public argument too. There are people out there who are looking for a reason not to get vaccinated. Don’t let these misinformed players give them that reason, at least not without a fight.

It is imperative that the NBA and its star players aggressively fight back against misinformation about the vaccine. Do not let opposition to the vaccine take the spotlight. Be brave, stand up for science and public health and push back against those who would discredit the only path out of this pandemic.

The NBA is 90% vaccinated. The league should be shouting this from the rooftops to the vaccine hesitant fans around the country and world. “90% of your favorite NBA players are vaccinated, and soon, they all will be. Because we’re all in this together. Let’s do this.” It’s beyond time for the NBA to do its part to make the case and help get us out of this pandemic, regardless of whether it puts off a handful of players.

* This is an affiliate link to Bookshop.org. I may receive commissions if you purchase the product linked.

And Now For Something Completely Different

Instead of boring or worse spoiling any GMIB readers with my commentary on the new season of the Great British Bake-Off, I launched a separate new FREE weekly-ish Bake-Off newsletter called Tent Pressure for this season. First issue is out today. You can read it here. At that link you can also sign up to receive Tent Pressure via email. Let’s see how it goes?

Scores

Mercury 85, Storm 80 (OT) — Seattle really missed Breanna Stewart, and Phoenix got Diana Taurasi back (she was a game-best +17 in 33 minutes). Brittney Griner and Brianna Turner dominated Mercedes Russell and Ezi Magbegor in the paint — the Mercury’s starting bigs combined for 35 points, 28 rebounds and five blocks. Phoenix trapped Jewell Loyd and generally defended her really well, knowing that stopping her meant largely stopping the Seattle offense. Loyd went 5/24 from the floor, a really sad finish to an incredible season.

STILL! Seattle almost pulled it out. What a game. Another instant classic — that’s two games in two rounds involving Phoenix.

Sky 89, Lynx 76 — Candace Parker played Napheesa Collier to a draw. Azura Stevens played Sylvia Fowles to a draw. Aerial Powers and Kayla McBride had strong offensive games for Minnesota, but that was overcome by really nice games from Courtney Vandersloot, Kahleah Copper, Diamond DeShields and Allie Quigley. The Lynx bench has been a struggle this season due to injuries and general roster depletion, and that showed here.

Chicago’s incredible turnaround continues. I guess the WNBA really did have a Big Six this season.

The best-of-five semifinals start Tuesday: Sky vs. Sun and Mercury vs. Aces.

Links

The New York Knicks are fully vaccinated!

Curtis Harris with a good dose of righteous indignation over Kyrie and Isaac.

Devin Booker announced on Twitch that he has COVID-19 but is coy about whether he was vaccinated.

Diana Taurasi is now 15-2 in win-or-go-home games all-time. And a bunch of Mercury teammates (current and former) have crazy good records, too.

The Last Dance for Ricky O’Donnell’s Western Illinois dynasty. Happy trails, Coach Ricky Charisma.

Andrew Wiggins asked the NBA for a religious exemption to flout the City of San Francisco’s rules requiring him to get the vaccine in order to continue to practice at Chase Center and play home games this season, and the NBA said no. I frankly wasn’t even aware the NBA could offer up religious exemptions to municipal rules?

Sylvia Fowles with a well-earned fourth Defensive Player of the Year award.

Manu Ginobili will be a special advisor with the Spurs.

Candace Buckner in the Washington Post on which superstars get to run the NBA. ($)

On the Dallas Wings’ solid foundation.

I’m pretty jealous reading Spencer Hall on hoodie season and Holly Anderson on chili season being that it was 90 where I live over the weekend, but still: hoodie and chili season.

“Yeah … a lot.” Absolutely mad.

Be excellent to each other.