Being “Pro NBA Player” Means Being Pro-Vaccine

Many of America’s pro athletes are union workers, albeit union workers with a decidedly distorted social position, relative to organized working-class people more broadly. They benefit greatly from collective bargaining. As is the case for all workers, unions are a pro athlete’s best friend. Just do your own investigation into what conditions and wages were like before unions—pro sports were part playground, part sweatshop.

But while most athletes treasure their union, they also are in a hyper-individualistic environment where individual contracts are signed and competition for roster spots is fierce. This can be at odds with the development of collective consciousness and solidarity. Right now this contradiction is biting the NBA in the ass, as workplace safety is being challenged by a small group of players in the name of a kind of faux, hyper-macho individualism and attraction to right-wing conspiracy theories more in line with John Wayne than with John Carlos.

A minority of high-profile NBA players are refusing the Covid-19 vaccine, earning the praise of sewer-dwellers everywhere from social media to the US Senate. Ted Cruz, a person who has openly attacked NBA players for standing against police violence and for Black lives, has offered them his unequivocal support with the trollish hashtag, #YourBodyYourChoice. As Michael Lee of The Washington Post responded, “If people I’d never rock with suddenly start co-signing what I’ve said or done, I’d have to re-evaluate what I said or did.”

Given the history of how the institutions of science and medicine have been used for racist ends, along with everything else this country has done to earn valid mistrust, it is not surprising that these doubts exist. But to hear prominent NBA players like Kyrie Irving who have spoken out against systemic racism now produce soundbites for the radical right is extremely jarring, and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise. These are the players that have stood taller than all others (save perhaps the WNBA—which, by the way, has a 99 percent vaccination rate) in support of the movement for Black Lives. This is a league that started the August 2020 sports strike wave that began with the Milwaukee Bucks and quickly spread throughout the game. Now people are shocked to find that some of those same players are not only failing to lead on this issue  but even standing proudly for the idea that they don’t have to care how their actions affect others.

Anti-vaxxer forward Andrew Wiggins said, “I’m just going to keep fighting for what I believe.” When asked what it was that he believed, he responded, “None of your business.” He has the right to believe what he wants. He can choose not to believe in gravity, but that won’t help him if he falls out of an airplane. The tragic truth is that Wiggins’s vaccination status is in fact the business of everyone he breathes on in his team’s facility. Yes, star Wizards guard Bradley Beal is correct that people who have been vaccinated still get the virus. But that’s like saying people who play football in helmets still get concussions. It’s still dangerous, but given the choice, you want that helmet. Even LeBron James, who is vaccinated, was asked if he would speak out and call for all players to take the shot, and he responded, “We’re talking about individuals’ bodies. We’re not talking about something that’s political or racism or police brutality, things of that nature. We’re talking about people’s bodies and well-being. So I don’t feel like, for me personally, that I should get involved in what other people do for their bodies and their livelihoods.”

I agree and disagree with this. First of all, it is about people’s bodies and livelihoods, and by not getting the shot, the anti-vaxxers are putting everyone’s body and livelihood at risk. If Jonathan Isaac of the Orlando Magic, who Rolling Stone reported was influenced to not get the vaccine by “watching Trump press conferences” (although Isaac has since said that’s incorrect), still refuses the shot and gets his teammates sick, that is very much messing with people’s bodies and livelihoods. As for LeBron’s statement that this is not a political issue like “racism” or “police brutality,” that’s just wrong too. The vaccine is absolutely a political and social issue. Solidarity is a political issue. Community health is a political issue. Look at the people lining up against it: the police unions, the worst of the Republican Party, the radical right. These are people who don’t believe in solidarity or community good. And they yawn at the thought of Black and brown folks’ bearing the brunt of this horrific virus.

The media amplification of this very small minority of players has pushed the NBA to say, “Any player who elects not to comply with local vaccination mandates will not be paid for games that he misses.” That the union has allowed the bosses to be the voice of vaccinations was a grave error. National Basketball Players Association Michele Roberts has issued this comment on vaccination rates among NBA players:

Over ninety percent (90%) of our Players are fully vaccinated. Nationally, on average only fifty-five (55%) of Americans are. The real story is not why vaccination isn’t mandated in the NBA. The real story for proponents of vaccination is how can we emulate the Players in the NBA.

Her point is well taken, but this is a dodge from the issue at hand. The NBPA is certainly not the only union by any stretch—hello, Teamsters—that sees its role as defending the right of its members to not get the shot, and thus increase the likelihood that other members will get sick. The union—and, frankly, all unions—should be out in front of this issue and fighting for not only players but also all workers in the business of basketball to have access to vaccinations, boosters, and whatever they need to be as safe as possible in these diseased times. They also should be fighting for the best possible health care so if anyone does get sick, there will be a road back to health. That is what solidarity is all about.

I don’t know what to even call this current calamity, but I know that if Ted Cruz were cheerleading my actions, I’d strongly reconsider what the hell I was doing.

Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to dave@edgeofsports.com.
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