In October 2020, more than a month before the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were due to receive emergency approval from the FDA, the Women’s National Basketball Players Association went to work.
The WNBPA understood that misinformation regarding the virus and vaccine had increased, and it seemed to be getting harder and harder to seek reliable guidance. They also likely believed that professional athletes were relatively easy targets for misinformation and conspiracy theories as highly impressionable young people with a lot of free time on their hands — time often spent on their phones scrolling social media — and relatively little contact. with the outside world. So they got together with league commissioner Cathy Engelbert and devised a plan to educate WNBA players about the Covid-19 vaccine so they could make informed choices when the time came.
The WNBA Players’ Union has put together an outreach program separate from the league itself, recognizing that players would have more confidence in other players than in the league’s front office or even those in charge of their teams. The WNBPA has approached the league for their questions about the vaccine and has enlisted experts to answer those questions via Zoom without judgment. And they did all this before recordings were actually readily available.
“It’s much easier to encourage vaccination when people start from a point of uncertainty rather than a place where they’ve already decided against the vaccine,” said Robert Blendon, a Harvard health policy professor.
Adds Atlanta Dream forward Elizabeth Williams, who originally brought the idea to the WNBPA: “I think” [the player-led approach] was what made players comfortable, to be honest. If the competition made it mandatory and we felt like we didn’t know enough about it, I don’t think people would have gotten vaccinated. But because as player leaders we said, ‘Hey, this is a chance to ask all these questions and not feel bad about it’ – I think that was kind of what made people feel more comfortable, not feel that extra level of pressure.
It worked. Ninety-nine percent of the WNBA’s players are currently vaccinated, the majority of all professional sports leagues in North America.
Fast-forward almost exactly a year later to NBA media day on Monday, which marks the start of the 2021-22 season, when 90% of the league was fully vaccinated — it’s since risen to 95% having at least their first chance – a much higher percentage than the rest of the United States, but in line with their economic counterparts and lower than the WNBA and even the NFL. As usual, the vocal minority took center stage.
Much attention has been paid to Andrew Wiggins and Kyrie Irving – both stars and, in Irving’s case, vice president on the players’ union executive committee – who play in markets where they must be vaccinated in order to play or practice at home this season. and who could lose tens of millions of dollars if they don’t. But the NBA’s vaccine problem extends beyond a few high-profile holdouts: The league and players’ union were unprepared for how important and divisive a political issue has become over the past year, and they’ve failed to take responsibility for it. Rather than be leaders on vaccines as the WNBA was — and as the NBA was when it arrived at the Black Lives Matter protests last year — the NBA waited too long to find out how polarized the league was about it. topic.
Washington Wizards security guard Bradley Beal said he “didn’t get sick at all” after contracting the coronavirus in July, which left him missing the chance to represent Team USA at the Tokyo Olympics. “I’ve lost my scent. That is it.”
“People with vaccines, why do they still get Covid?… It’s funny that ‘Oh, it reduces your chances of going to the hospital’. It doesn’t exclude anyone from getting COVID, right? Some people react badly to “The vaccine. Nobody likes to talk about that. What happens if one of our players gets the vaccine and can’t play after that? Or do they have complications after that? Because there are cases like that.”
Jonathan Isaac, a religious man who plays for the Orlando Magic, said, “In the end, it’s people [developing vaccines], and you can’t always trust people completely.”
And Denver Nuggets wing Michael Porter J said: “Before me I had Covid twice, I saw how my body reacted, and while the chances are slim, with the vaccine there’s a chance you could react badly to it. For me I don’t feel comfortable.
“If you want to get it because you feel more protected and you feel more secure, and it protects the people around you, get it. That’s good for you. But if you feel like, ‘Oh, for me I don’t feel safe getting it, don’t get it.’”
Remember, there are no publicly known cases of professional basketball players missing out on time due to vaccine-related side effects, and serious side effects are rare for everyone. And don’t forget that some athletes have spoken of lingering respiratory and muscle problems after contracting Covid-19, with Boston Celtics star Jayson Tatum suffering months of persistent disability after contracting the virus last season, forcing the use of an inhaler before the matches needed to help his breathing long after he had recovered. Also forget that these vaccine holdouts are ignoring a crucial reason to get the vaccine, which is to protect others.
More importantly, the NBA has waited just long enough for some of its star players to irresponsibly contribute to the reason the NBA and American society are in this predicament in the first place: the disinformation crisis. And that’s the bigger problem here: not the fact that Wiggins and Irving might be willing to sit out 41 home games instead of getting the vaccine, but the fact that the NBA has allowed influential NBA players to have vaccine- broadcasting skepticism and misinformation to a very vulnerable American audience.
It was recently reported that a campaign of misinformation about a Moderna microchip has spread across multiple NBA locker rooms and group chats, although it’s unclear how common it is that 95% of the league is now vaccinated, up from 85% just a few weeks ago. . But what is clear is that some NBA players used media day to spread misinformation and, with support from Republicans such as: Ted Cruz and ESPN became Fox News pundit Will Cain, this is problematic because even if their views are not spread through the NBA locker rooms, they will affect society; that’s just the area that comes with being professional athletes, especially those in the most politically relevant sports league in the United States.
Now people are calling on LA Lakers star LeBron James to call out anti-vaxxers, as he has the biggest influence of all the voices in the league. They’re calling out Wiggins and Irving for refusing to recognize that pandemics are inherently public and that what they call “individual decisions” matter to other people when it comes to the vaccine. But these are inherently reactionary solutions that fail to get to the root of the problem, which is education and reducing misinformation.
“They don’t meet the responsibilities that come with celebrities. Athletes are not required to be government spokespersons, but this is a public health issue,” NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said of the vaccinations. He is particularly disappointed in athletes of color, saying, “By not encouraging their people to get the vaccine, they are contributing to these deaths.”
Yes, star players like LeBron should be encouraging the NBA fraternity to get vaccinated to protect themselves and others. But it will take a much more concerted effort on behalf of the league and its players’ association to limit the damage already done and to properly inform its vaccine holdouts before it’s too late. The fact that we haven’t seen anything quite like the WNBA’s player-led vaccine outreach program in the NBA is disappointing, but there’s still a huge opportunity for the NBA players’ union to establish an educational vaccine program. for both the players and the audience.
“If Black Lives Matter is what we stand for, then in the public health space this is really big for black and brown communities,” WNBA players’ union executive director Terri Jackson said of the WNBPA’s message, citing the fact that black Americans have been disproportionately hospitalized and died from Covid-19. They are also still vaccinated more slowly than any other race or ethnicity measured by the CDC. “We’d better be informed and we’d better be ready to show up.”
The NBA was not informed and they were not ready to appear. Instead of blaming others for the current vaccine crisis, they should probably take a long look in the mirror and get to work, because no one else is going to fix this problem for them.