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Ninety percent of all NBA players have gotten a coronavirus shot. But even now, with just a few weeks to go before regular season play starts up, there are some notable holdouts, including Bradley Beal of the Washington Wizards, Andrew Wiggins of the Golden State Warriors, and Kyrie Irving of the Brooklyn Nets. LeBron James recently disclosed that he got vaccinated, but would not pressure other players to do the same.
On Thursday’s episode of What Next, I talked to Bomani Jones, ESPN commentator and host of the Right Time podcast, about LeBron’s statement, why NBA players aren’t getting vaccinated, and what could convince them. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Mary Harris: During the last two seasons, it seemed like the NBA was handling the pandemic really adeptly. The 2020 season finished out inside the very strict Disney bubble. The 2021 season had a really stringent testing regimen and pretty much went off without a hitch. But when negotiations happened over this season, the players union said a vaccine mandate was unequivocally off the table, even though referees and other NBA employees had agreed to one. When did you first hear that vaccination could be an issue with some of the players?
Bomani Jones: I didn’t actually hear that it could be an issue, but I figured that it might, ’cause it’s an issue for everybody else. There was no reason for me to expect this particular group of people to be more or less enlightened than anybody else is on this matter. There are some things that a union is going to push back on, particularly in an industry like this one, and in this industry “you have to put this in your body” is something that is never, ever going to be able to fly. It really is a slippery slope, I think, for them in particular, because so much of that job does involve putting things in your body. You gotta at least have the option to say no if you want to do that. And so this is somewhere where, as much as people can talk about the weakness of the National Basketball Players Association in different negotiations, this is one that they had to stand on and they stood on it. And I think that the owners ultimately understood that the players are going to stand on it because they didn’t try to bring them to the ground.
’Cause your body is your livelihood.
What are the rules exactly for NBA players at this point?
It’s increased testing if you are not vaccinated. Your locker, for example, I think it is literally as far as possible away from the rest of the team if you are not going to be vaccinated. I think there’s increased masking requirements if you’re not going to be vaccinated. I mean, they may sound really inconvenient, if that’s going to be the case.
Now, in New York City and in San Francisco, there have been local ordinances passed that basically you can’t come inside to a large indoor event if you have not been vaccinated. In New York, it requires one shot. In San Francisco, I believe you have to be fully vaccinated in order to do that. Now, we talk about this strictly in the context of those two places, but I don’t know why we’re assuming that that won’t be adopted by other places if the delta or whatever else starts raging even more. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if you saw those places then make the same calls as these other cities have. And then when that happens, there’s going to be a lot of dudes caught flat-footed.
That’s because, whatever rules the NBA has in place, players will also be bound by the laws of whatever state they happen to be playing in. For some unvaccinated stars, like Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn, restrictions in their home states mean that they could be barred from home games.
Let’s talk about some of the reasons people are giving. Jonathan Isaac from the Orlando Magic is talking about natural immunity. He’s had COVID. I listened to this press conference he gave. He was incredibly clear and straightforward and he was very angry at being misrepresented as anti-vax by some journalists, he felt, in this process. What did you make of that?
Well, the “I already had it, I’m protected”—that begs follow-up questions, right? How protected are you? When did it happen? It’s not like the chickenpox. You’re not about to be like “I’m good from here on out.”
Yeah. You can get it twice.
Yeah. I mean, [NFL quarterback] Lamar Jackson will tell you that. That’s not really how that one works. As someone who has heard Jonathan Isaac talk before and found him to sound ridiculous, I did not think that he necessarily sounded ridiculous on this one, even though he is taking an approach that I do not agree with. I look at him and I’m like, OK, I get that you’re now worried about you, but this isn’t just about you. And I think that the libertarian streak of a lot of the not even anti-vax broadly, but anti-this-particular-vaccine-right-here, is purely looking at it through the prism of themselves and not thinking about anybody else. When we were doing the super hardcore social distancing thing, everyone was supposed to assume that they were an asymptomatic carrier, and how to stop the spread is by not interacting any more than you absolutely had to. People looked at that as “stay inside so you don’t catch it” as opposed to “stay inside so you don’t spread it.” So you get guys like him who are only thinking about this in the context of catching it, not in the context of transmitting it.
And then you have Andrew Wiggins from San Francisco. His excuse is basically the “none of your business” excuse.
Yeah, but what got me about him and where I just looked at him funny was he said that he was going to fight for what he believed in. And I’ve never seen anybody who sounded less confident or convicted while stating that they were fighting for what they believed in than that man did.
He also said his back was against the wall. He implied he was going to get the shot because in San Francisco, like New York, they have these requirements that in the playing venue you have to have a vaccine. So even though the NBA itself doesn’t have a mandate, he’s a little bit stuck.
Yeah, and I got to say, the NBA, I would make an argument, is being nicer to a lot of these guys than I am or even some of the places. So New York is like, you good if you get one shot, even if you haven’t gotten the second. No, man, let us know when you all the way good! Like, I don’t need this cake half-baked, myself. That’s just the way I look at it. Like, nah, go ahead and let that stay all the way till the oven ding, and then we will take you out and then everybody can have dessert. That would be the way that I would look at it.
And Wiggins, he did sound like “All right, well, I guess I’m ultimately going to do it.” And I’m like, then why don’t you go ahead and get ahead of the game then? But there was no way you were going to get out of this. This is not something that the league had any control over.
I feel like we should talk about privilege and how that plays into all of this conversation about who’s vaccinated and who’s not in the NBA, because it’s so different for you to be a fine player who is saying you don’t want to get a vaccine and for you to be a superstar player saying you don’t want to get a vaccine. Kyrie Irving, last season we saw him sitting out games, it was kind of unclear why. We saw him going to parties for people in his family without a mask. It was clear that he had this privilege, like he could get away with stuff that maybe another player couldn’t. How do you think that’s going to play out in the next few weeks?
This is the NBA. Big stars have pull. There’s no way around that part. The biggest stars in the NBA mean more to their teams than the biggest stars in any team sport, at least that we play in the United States. There’s no contesting or disputing that. I’ve just been curious how that’s going to play out with the whole team. Dudes just be like, “Yo, I need to go take a week off,” and maybe you do. But I’ve always wondered at some point if the other guys who are around him are going to get frustrated.
The big benefit of getting the vaccine is not only making it less likely that you contract COVID-19, but also to protect you from severe symptoms. And these things can carry on for people. We’ve had stories about people in general and athletes specifically who’ve been long-haulers with this and it’s been devastating for them—and young people, college-age people. Jayson Tatum last year, for example, was using an inhaler at the end of the season after he had caught COVID-19 beforehand. And so if you do wind up catching it, there’s no way that you could argue that it helps anybody, especially not the team you play for and yourself.
I’m surprised to not be hearing a lot more from players who have been deeply touched by COVID. And it seems to me like the vaccinated players aren’t necessarily pressuring the unvaccinated players to get the shot. I wonder what you make of that.
Well, I think it’s possible that they’re doing it when we’re not around, but they’re not going to do it out here. And I don’t blame them, because of the tenor and tone that is being used to discuss the players who are not vaccinated. I would not want to seem like I was riding with those people either, though I often wind up finding myself in that same place. I find myself, I would not say, advocating for people who are not vaccinated, but being careful to say, “I don’t know what the reasons are for a whole lot of them,” just because I don’t like the tenor of what comes back in the other direction. So for a lot of those players, I don’t know the conversation that they have with those dudes. I don’t believe that everybody who is not vaccinated is doing so for a stupid reason. And if you feel like you’re on a team and people are calling your folks stupid, I can understand why you’re not going to run and join to do that. But when nobody’s around, it’s totally possible that they’re having much more stringent conversations, which is basically the case with everything in sports. Whatever hell they’re giving each other, it’s a big deal when they share it with us, but that doesn’t mean they don’t share it privately.
The biggest player in the league is, of course, LeBron James, and he’s spoken out a little bit. Can you tell that story?
LeBron said that he was vaccinated and did that whole same “It’s a private decision between me and my family.” I got to say, this wasn’t nearly as complex for me. It was like, when can I get an appointment? That was the most complex question I had when it came time for vaccination. But apparently for everybody else, you got to go talk to the wife. You got to go talk to your pastor, everybody else. OK. I guess that’s how you get down. Cool. And so LeBron said that and he reinforced the idea that everybody should be allowed to make their own choice. That’s the principle that he’s standing on with this.
No one is obligated to be a leader on everything. You get to pick and choose and decide the things that you want to be out on the front of or things you were called for. I get that. And so I’m not one of those people that’s like, “Well, LeBron can talk about the police in America, but he can’t say nothing about China.” LeBron is not obligated to say something about everything. However, LeBron has absolutely tried to tell us all what a leader he is—and a leader for Black people. I think that’s part of the way that he’s characterized himself in this. I don’t feel like this is a time for all the big talk that he’s had about the importance of his voice. This doesn’t seem to be a time to be like “I got to respect everybody’s privacy on this.”
I totally agree with you. And just watching him, I was kind of divided because I understood what he was saying, which is I’m not going to convince anyone by telling people you have to get vaccinated. If I come out on this, guns blazing, people will just stop listening to me. That was his opinion.
He’s wrong. He’s wrong.
Yeah. I think this would be a time for Leader LeBron to step up. I think that he could do a lot good in this moment to do so. I think in doing so, he might offend some people. You ain’t gonna get nothing done without offending people. That’s a risk for you to take. I look at him funny for this. I do. I think that in a lot of ways, LeBron wants the spoils of being presented as the person who was out front, but does not necessarily want the stress that comes with it. And this is a point I’ve always made about LeBron: He picks and chooses spots. And again, he has the right to pick and choose his spots. But if you’re going to be the guy that positions himself as a leader, you don’t get to pick and choose your spots like that, in the name of ease and convenience. You don’t get to do that.
The NBA has said that teams do not have to pay players for missing games if they aren’t vaxxed, but especially for the big names, who have made so much already, a slightly smaller paycheck might not be enough to push them to get the shot.
I think that not being vaccinated is really a privilege sort of issue in a lot of these places. So we’re hearing about Kyrie Irving and Andrew Wiggins. Now, I can’t see those guys walking away from $16, $17 million apiece, which is what it would be for each of them if they did not play home games. But if they really wanted to, they could afford to do it. I don’t think the $20 million that they’d get for playing those home games is $20 million they’re ever going to get around to spending. They could do that. Most people don’t have that luxury.
And so, overwhelmingly, the league has presented proof of vaccination and they’re going to get out there. But even this small percentage of NBA players in particular, I think that the league is surprised that they didn’t just go ahead and get on it. I think they also thought the peer pressure would be a big part of it, because I think the most effective part probably in what they’re doing to try to induce people to cooperate if they did not want to is basically separating them from the team, which is probably the greatest inconvenience that any of them would suffer under these circumstances. What’s going to happen is some guys are going to find the hassles to be too much and they’re going to go get vaccinated, and then you’re going to look up and people who cover the team are going to recognize that that person doesn’t have to adhere to the other protocols anymore.
You’re just going to realize they’re on the court, so they must have gotten vaccinated.
Yeah. “I’m tired of sitting over here eating lunch by myself,” you know. I think that kind of stuff is going to happen. But I don’t think there’s anything left to talk about. One thing we do have to stop pretending is that there any holdouts that can be converted. I think that part is over.