The Vaccine Holdouts in the NBA

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S1: OK. Here’s a riddle for you. What do Ted Cruz and LeBron James have in common? If you ask the senator, pretty much the only thing they have in common is the way they feel about COVID vaccines. A couple of days ago, after it became clear that the NBA would not be mandating players get shots before they get on the court, one player after another started fielding questions. Were they vaccinated? What about their teammates? When asked? LeBron said he was vaccinated. But as for everyone else, I don’t talk about what other people should do. That sounded just about right to the Republican senator from Texas. He quickly tweeted out his support, writing, Hashtag your body, your choice. Here’s a bit of data. 90 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 these notable Holdouts. These are the people LeBron wants to just leave alone.

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S2: I am not vaccinated. No, no. Do you care to share what? Personal reason. Yeah.

S1: Some, like Bradley Beal from the Washington Wizards, are saying they’re afraid of side effects.

S3: You know, was right to one person is in right to the other. You know, vice versa.

S1: A lot of players like Andrew Wiggins at the Golden State Warriors have simply told reporters to butt out.

S4: Andrew, you seem pretty convinced was the reason for not just explaining what you believe.

S3: Yeah, because it’s none of your business. That’s what it comes down to. You know?

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S1: But the player I’m thinking most about has been particularly coy. We can

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S2: only presume that you’re not joining us right now because of

S1: vaccination. Kyrie Irving, a star player for my hometown team, the Brooklyn Nets, he hasn’t said he’s not vaccinated, but he’s been notably absent from any appearances that would require a shot.

S4: Yeah, no, Brian. I appreciate your questions, bro. Honestly, I like to keep that stuff private, man. I’m a I’m a human being

S1: first with Kyrie on the court. The Nets could be headed to the playoffs, but because of how vaccination rules work in New York City, if he doesn’t get the shot, Kyrie could not even be able to walk into his hometown stadium. And all this was enough that even the mayors weighed in. He’s basically begged Kyrie to get vaccinated

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S2: if it falls apart for the Nets. I don’t think it’s going to be about the COVID stuff.

S1: I called up ESPN’s Bomani Jones basically to cry in a shoulder,

S2: but I think Kyrie need a whole room to stand up and be like, Hey man, you got to stop talking gibberish. Like, not not awesome, eh? Everybody’s saying you entitled your opinion, but but like, yo, you sound ridiculous right now.

S1: Today on the show, will the NBA find its season reshaped by COVID again? I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick around. During the last two seasons, it seemed like the NBA was handling the pandemic pretty well. The 2020 season got cut short, but it finished up inside the Disney bubble. The 2021 season had a pretty 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?

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S2: I didn’t actually hear that it could be an issue, but I figured that it might cause is an issue for everybody else. Like, 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 their job does involve putting things in your body, you got at least had 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 it was necessary that the players are going to stand on it because they didn’t try to bring them to the ground, right?

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S1: Because your body is your livelihood. Right, right. What are the rules exactly for NBA players at this point? I mean, I recognize it’s different in different places because of the regional differences. But what did they eventually agree to after this tense negotiation with the players union?

S2: It’s increased testing. If you were not vaccinated, your locker, for example, has to be. I think it is literally as far as possible away from the rest of the team if you were not going to be vaccinated. I think there’s increased masking requirements if you’re not going to be vaccinated. I mean, they make it sound really inconvenient if there’s going to be the case now of what’s happened with the travel in the legs. And this is I actually think people are paying enough attention to this. So 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, it’s going to be a lot to do is caught flat footed.

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S1: That’s because whatever rules the NBA’s got in place, players are also going to 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 they could be barred from home games. Let’s talk about some of the reasons people are giving, because I think it’s useful to just kind of listen to the players a little bit here. We’ve got Jonathan Isaac from Orlando Magic. He’s talking about natural immunity. He’s had COVID and he actually, I listen to this press conference he gave. He was incredibly clear and straightforward, and he was very angry at being misrepresented by some journalists he felt in this process.

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S5: I would just I would start by saying that that I was pretty badly misrepresented. I’m not anti-vax, I’m not anti medicine, I’m not anti science.

S1: But he was basically saying, I have the utmost respect for health care workers. I’m not anti-vax, I’m making a choice for me.

S5: With that being said, it is my belief that the vaccine status of every person should be their own choice.

S1: And by the way, I already had COVID, and so I’m protected a little bit. What did you make of that?

S2: Well, the I already had it unprotected, like that’s that that begs follow up questions, right? Like how protected are you? When did it happen? Is not like, this is a it’s not like the chicken pox, right? You’re not about to be like, I’m good from here on out. Yeah, you can’t get it twice. Yeah, I mean, Lamar Jackson to tell you that, like, that’s not really how that one works. I. As someone who has heard Jonathan Isaac taught 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. Where where I look at him and I’m like, OK, I get that you’re not worried about you. But this isn’t just about you. And I think that the the libertarian streak of a lot of the non 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, like when we were doing the super hardcore social distancing thing, when the test was short and everything else reason was everyone was supposed to assume that they were an asymptomatic carrier and that to stop the spread is by not interacting any more than you absolutely had. Two people instead looked at that is, 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.

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S1: Yeah, yeah. And then you have Andrew Wiggins from San Francisco. His excuse is basically like the none of your business excuse, which is

S2: yeah, but he said, yeah, he said it’s none of our business. 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.

S3: But. I’m just going to keep fighting for what I believe and whether it’s one thing or another and get the vaccine and not get it vaccination. Who knows, I’m just going to, you know, keep fighting for it, I believe. And what I believe

S2: is right, and I’ve never seen anybody who sounded less confident or convicted while stating that they were fighting for what they believed in, then that man did.

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S1: He also said his back was against the wall. He kind of implied he was going to get the shot at the end of the day because in San Francisco, of course, 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.

S2: Yeah. And I got to say the NBA I would make the argument is being nicer to a lot of these guys than I am, or even like some of the places I saw in New York, New York is like, you good. If you get one shot, right? Even if you haven’t gotten the second no man, let us know when you all the way good, right? Like, I don’t I don’t need this cake half baked myself. Like, that’s just the way I look at it. Like now, go ahead and let that stay all the way to the urban thing. And then we will take you out and then everybody can have dessert that that would be the way that I would look at it. And Wiggins, yeah, he did sound like, all right. Well, I guess I’m ultimately going to do it, and I look at that and I’m like, Well, why don’t you go ahead and get ahead of the game then? But I mean, but there was no way you were going to get out of this. This is not something that the league had any control over.

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S1: Yeah, 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 who is saying you don’t want to get a vaccine. We talked about Kyrie Irving a little bit. I think it’s just important to return to him because already last season we saw him sitting out games. It was kind of unclear why we saw him out and about sort of going to parties for people in his family without a mask. It was just a little bit confusing, but it was also really clear that he had this privilege like he could kind of 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?

S2: I mean, this is the NBA big stars that Paul like. There’s no way around that part. The biggest stars in the NBA mean more of their teams than the biggest stars in any team sport, at least that we play in the United States. There’s there’s no there’s no contesting or disputing that. I’ll just be curious how that’s going to play out with the whole team like I do just be like, Yo, I need to go take a week off, and maybe you do. But I’ve always wondered at some point at the other guys who are around him are going to get frustrated like me. Talk about privilege. I mean, the big benefit of getting the vaccine is not only, you know, 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. And we’ve had stories about people in general and athletes in specific have been long haulers, but this has been devastating for them in young people like college age people. We’ve we’ve gotten stories about this. So if you do wind up contracting COVID 19, Jayson Tatum last year, for example, was using an inhaler, you know, at the end of the season after he had caught COVID 19 beforehand. And so, you know, there’s if you do wind up catching it there going, I mean, it does. There’s no way that you could argue that it helps anybody, especially not the team you play for in yourself.

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S1: When we come back, why peer pressure hasn’t resulted in more players getting faxed. 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. And I wonder what you make of that, like I said, something to do with the NBA or something else.

S2: 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 were not vaccinated. I would not want to seem like I was riding with those people either, though I often wound up finding myself in that same place like I find myself being, 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 I think for a lot of those players, there is, you know, I don’t know the conversation that they had with those dudes. I don’t I don’t believe that everybody who was not vaccinated is doing so for a stupid reason. And so 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 enjoined to do that. But when nobody’s around, it’s totally possible that they’re have much more stringent conversations, which is basically the case with everything in sports. They’re never going to be whatever hell they given each other. It’s a big deal when they share it with us. But that doesn’t mean they don’t share it privately.

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S1: Yeah, I guess we’ll find out in like three weeks time. Let me see who walks onto what court, right? I mean, the biggest player in the league is, of course, LeBron James, and he he’s spoken out a little bit, but I wonder if you can characterize what he’s said because you know, my colleagues here at Slate, there was an article where they were like, Please, LeBron, say something about vaccination. And it was written before he said something. And then what he said was so careful.

S2: Yes, LeBron. He said that he was vaccinated and did that whole thing. 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. And so LeBron said that and you know, you reinforced the idea that everybody should be allowed to make their own choice, like, that’s the principle that he’s standing on with this. You guys should

S4: know me anything that I talk about. I don’t talk about other people and what they should do. I speak for me and for my family. And you know, that’s what it’s about. But you don’t think the issue is important enough for someone with your stature to to speak out on. You know, we talk about individuals, bodies. You know, we’re not talking about something else. You know, political or racism or police brutality and things of that nature that we’re somewhat like people’s bodies and we’re all beings. You know, so I don’t feel like for me personally and I should get involved and what other people should do for their bodies and their livelihoods.

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S2: No one is obligated to be a leader on everything. All right. You get to pick and I think choose and decide the things that you want to be out on the front over things you were called for. I get that. And so I’m not one of those people as they will to to talk about the police in America. But you can’t say nothing about China. LeBron is not obligated to say something about everything. However, LeBron is absolutely, absolutely tried to tell us all what a leader he is and and like a leader for black people. I mean, that’s 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.

S1: I totally agree with you, and I just like 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. Like if I come out on this, you know, guns blazing and say, you have to do this like people will just stop listening to me. That was that was his opinion. He’s wrong.

S2: Yeah, really. I. I think this would be a time for a leader, LeBron, to step up. I think that he could do a lot of good in this moment to do so. I think in doing so, he might offend some people. That’s the you ain’t going to get that done without offending people. That’s a risk for you to take. I I look at him funny for this. I do. I just think I think that I think that in a lot of ways, LeBron wants the spoils of being presented as the person who is out front but does not necessarily want stress that comes with it. And this is a point I’ve always made about LeBron. He picks and chooses spots, right? 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, it doesn’t. 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

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S1: without more peer pressure. The NBA has got relatively little leverage over their players. They’ve got those rules that’ll keep unvaccinated folks isolated from their teammates, putting them in a stress position, basically. The league has also said that teams don’t have to pay players for missing games if they aren’t boxed. But especially for the big names who have made so much money already, a slightly smaller paycheck might not be enough to push them to get the shot.

S2: I think that not being vaccinated is really a privilege sort of issue in a lot of these places. So, you know, we heard about Kyrie Irving and Andrew Wiggins. They play in cities that have ordinances that would make it impossible for them to play home games if they do not get vaccinated now. I can’t see those guys walking away from $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. Like, I don’t think the $20 million that they’d get for playing those home games is 20 million dollars. 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 I do think that 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 that peer pressure would be a big part of it because they’re, 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 than any of them would suffer under these circumstances. What’s going to happen to? 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.

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S1: You’re just going to realize like they’re on the court, oh, they must have gotten vaccinated.

S2: Yeah, I’m tired at sitting over here eating lunch by myself, you know? You know, and then that I think that kind of stuff is going to happen, but I don’t think there’s anything left to talk about. Like, we got one thing we do have to stop pretending is though there any like Holdouts that can be converted? I don’t think I think that part is over. Hmm.

S1: You think people have made their choices now, right?

S2: And either you go, make them get it or you’re not. If they haven’t gotten it already,

S1: Bomani I love having you on. Thank you so much for chatting.

S2: All right. No problem. You guys have a good one.

S1: Bomani Jones is an ESPN commentator and the host of the Right Time with Bomani Jones podcast, and that that is our show. What next is produced by Mary Wilson Davis Land Carmel Delshad, Daniel Hewitt and Delaina Schwartz. We’re led by Alison Benedict and Alicia Montgomery. And I’m Mary Harris. Go track me down on Twitter. Tell me what you really think of your own NBA team. I’m at Mary desk. All right. Catch you back here on Monday.