On Tuesday, LeBron James told reporters that he is vaccinated against COVID-19 after spending last season dodging the question.
“I think everyone has their own choice to do what they feel is right for themselves and their family,” he said. “I know that I was very skeptical about it all, but after doing my research and things of that nature, I felt like it was best suited for not only me but for my family and my friends, and that’s why I decided to do it.”
As for why he isn’t doing more publicly to convince others to get vaccinated, James said, “We’re talking about individuals’ bodies. We’re not talking about something that’s political or racism or police brutality and things of that nature.” James wrapped up his comments with: “I don’t feel like for me personally that I should get involved in what other people should do for their bodies and their livelihoods.”
James isn’t the only popular NBA player to say that the vaccine is an individual’s choice—Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant have made similar comments—and he’s certainly not the most powerful person to hold this viewpoint. (See: actual policymakers like Sen. Ted Cruz.) Still, pandemics require a population-level response, and despite James’ framing that “we’re not talking about something that’s political or racism,” racism is very much intertwined with the vaccine and the virus. Deferring to a “my body, my choice” stance doesn’t shake when vaccination status affects others and determines whether the spread of an infectious disease can be slowed or stopped.
That was my reaction. But I wanted to know how that message—“yes, I got the vaccine, but I’m not going to say that you should get it too, because it’s a personal choice”—sat with public health officials who have spent so much time thinking about messaging and persuasion.
“It’s really a missed opportunity for him to be able to say, ‘Hey, I encourage you all to get vaccinated to help protect our communities,’ ” said Rupali Limaye, the director of behavioral and implementation science at Johns Hopkins’ International Vaccine Access Center. “I appreciate him coming out and saying that he got it, but I wish he could have taken that a little further.”
Robert Fullilove, a professor of social medical sciences at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, also saw James’ statement as a missed opportunity, and for a very specific reason. “There’s a collective identity that drives a lot of individual decision-making in the Black community,” he told me. “And one always regrets when someone like LeBron decides that it’s not the moment to take up that particular argument.”
Seventy-seven percent of adults in the U.S. have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine (and 90 percent of NBA players are reportedly fully vaxxed, it’s worth noting), with the racial gap in vaccinations closing. Black Americans currently account for 14 percent of recent vaccinations despite making up 10 percent of the U.S. population. Vaccine hesitancy is also dropping nationally, but pockets of skepticism remain—mostly falling along political lines. And James, a prominent cultural figure who got vaccinated despite being initially skeptical, is the sort of person whose backing can rocket an initiative in the right direction. It seems safe to assume there are at least some people who would follow his example.
While systemic barriers to vaccination are a bigger concern, any lingering skepticism from Black folks must be considered within the context of how the medical establishment has treated them. Limaye even framed the “it’s my body” argument as a way for Black Americans, at least, to reclaim power from a medical system that discriminates against them.
James could have been the perfect spokesperson for the vaccine considering that distrust. He exists outside the health care system, has millions of fans, and could have easily fit into the history of sports figures advocating for public health initiatives: In November 1991, Magic Johnson announced during an NBA press conference that he was HIV positive. A month later, HIV tests jumped 60 percent in New York as part of a national increase in testing. Johnson then threw the weight of his fame into public advocacy.
“The debt that you might owe to your community is not something that is heavily emphasized” in official public health messaging, Fullilove told me. “Having more folks who speak for the group while describing their own individual decisions and why they make them could have real power.” Still, there are downsides to even the best celebrity messaging, Fullilove said, with so much riding on big name role models and star power rather than any attachment to the public good. “One worries that, as a consequence, the power that has been so much a part of what we do collectively is somehow lost.”