Update Sept. 28, 2021, at 5:48 p.m.: Tuesday afternoon, LeBron James announced that he had in fact been vaccinated, but that he would not advocate that others do so. “We’re talking about individuals’ bodies,” he said. “We’re not talking about something that’s political or racism or police brutality and things of that nature.” The original post remains below.
On Saturday, Rolling Stone published an article about a vocal minority of NBA players who are refusing to take the COVID-19 vaccine and, allegedly, spreading doubts about it to their peers. This contingent, led by extremely free-thinking Brooklyn Nets star and Players Association vice president Kyrie Irving, threatens the possibility of games played by partial rosters because unvaxxed individuals are prohibited from competing in cities like San Francisco and New York City that have strict indoor COVID rules—or, worse, that there will be further spread of the disease in a community where it’s already had tragic consequences. (The basketball season is scheduled to begin on Oct. 19 with, as it happens, a matchup between Irving’s Nets and the defending champion Bucks in Milwaukee.)
The NBA’s response to the initial wave of the pandemic was, relative to other sports leagues and social institutions in general, very adept. The league suspended play immediately when a player tested positive, then restarted months later in a Disney World playoffs “bubble” setup heavy on testing and limits on personal movement. The bubble was by most measures a success: There were no major outbreaks, and while some players opted not to participate, most opted in, including the biggest stars. The play appeared to be high-quality, and a memorable series of playoff matchups was capped by LeBron James’ first championship as a Los Angeles Laker. It was about as ideal a balance of living life and being responsible as one could have hoped for at the time.
So how did the league get from there to a situation where the biggest stories from its annual media day included Golden State Warriors guard Andrew Wiggins’ assertion that his decision not to wear a mask, in public, is a “private” one that he shouldn’t be obligated to defend? The explanation involves television and basic arithmetic.
The television part is this: The only really objective measure by which a modern sport succeeds or fails is TV ratings, and those ratings are mostly determined by whether it is broadcasting games that pair two high-interest “brands” against each other. The brands can be teams, or they can be individual players, which is where the math comes in. In basketball, there are only five players on each team competing at a time, and only eight or so who play for a team in any given game. That’s fewer than in baseball, football, hockey, or soccer. So, to an extent that’s only matched by NFL quarterbacks—who are only on the field half of the time, at that—a very good NBA player can determine whether their team wins or loses. Naturally—because they’re more essential to prosperity than individuals in any other team sport—those players become the most famous, highly compensated, and powerful.
Currently, the NBA brand that creates the most wealth via TV ratings, product endorsements, and entertainment projects belongs to LeBron James. James is at the center of the network of agents, executives, and deals that other players make their living in. He’s also believed by many around the league to be the best player of all time on the court and has endured considerable public backlash—both by switching teams multiple times as a free agent and by speaking critically and frequently about police brutality and criminal justice issues—in ways that have helped make other players more professionally and personally autonomous.
As someone who is both feared and respected, then, James’ word goes a long way. In 2020, while he did not necessarily enjoy day-to-day life while confined to Disney hotels, he wanted to keep playing however possible, as did other top draws like James Harden, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard, Damian Lillard, and Chris Paul.* (Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry, who at the time at least were the league’s second- and third-most well-known players in one order or another, were out with injuries.) The arrangement and execution of the bubble, then, went forward smoothly despite some objections—including those of Irving, who reportedly wanted players to boycott it and start a different league themselves—from other players.
But James hasn’t endorsed universal COVID vaccine adoption, or even disclosed whether he’s taken the shot himself. Whether that’s because of image-related caution or personal concerns, no one in his circle has said, and the Lakers’ front office says only that it believes all of the team’s players will be vaccinated by the opening night. But the end result is that he, unlike stars like Lillard and Antetokounmpo, is not putting his weight behind a good cause, and as respected as those other stars are, it still leaves a vacuum in which figures like Irving have more room to do damage.
You could argue that James is ultimately not a public-health official or political leader, and that he should be able to keep his distance from any given nonbasketball conflict without being criticized. On the other hand, you could also argue that as both a product pitchman and social activist he has asked not just for the public’s attention but for its trust, and that trust can be both gained and lost. And through his mere silence, he’s creating the impression that he might be an anti-vax conspiracist himself. Assuming he isn’t, there’s never been a more urgent occasion, really, to talk and dribble at the same time.
Correction, Sept. 28, 2021: This post originally misspelled Giannis Antetokounmpo’s last name.